This Ancient Roman Souvenir Stylus Is Inscribed With a Corny Joke

Loosely translated, the message reads, ‘I went to Rome and all I got you was this stylus’

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Out of 200 styluses found during excavations, this was the only one with an inscription Museum of London Archaeology

The next time a friend brings back a tacky souvenir gift from their vacation, consider this: Even the ancient Romans weren’t above bringing home the occasional tchotchke.

As the Museum of London Archaeology (MOLA) reports in a blog post, a joke-inscribed iron stylus unearthed during excavations in the English capital is now on view for the first time. The tool, dated to around 70 A.D., bears a message that roughly equates to the Latin version of “I went to Rome and all I got you was this stylus.”

Per a more accurate translation by classicist and epigrapher Roger Tomlin, the inscription actually reads: “I have come from the City. I bring you a welcome gift with a sharp point that you may remember me. I ask, if fortune allowed, that I might be able [to give] as generously as the way is long [and] as my purse is empty”—in other words, the gift is cheap, but it is all the giver can (or wants to) buy on such a slim budget.

According to the Guardian’s Dalya Alberge, archaeologists found the stylus while conducting excavations for Bloomberg’s London headquarters between 2010 and 2014. The writing implement was one of some 14,000 artifacts discovered during the dig; other finds include 400 wax tablets documenting legal and business affairs, 200 uninscribed styluses, the first written reference to Londinium’s name, and thousands of pottery shards.

This Ancient Roman Souvenir Stylus Is Inscribed With a Corny Joke
The iron stylus likely dates to around 70 A.D. Museum of London Archaeology

At first, archaeologists struggled to read the inscription, which had been partly masked by corrosion. Thanks to careful conservation efforts, however, the stylus—likely gifted by an individual who had just returned from a trip to Rome—has now been preserved for posterity.

“It’s one of the most human objects from Roman London. It’s very unpretentious and witty. It gives you a real sense of the person who wrote it,” MOLA senior Roman finds specialist Michael Marshall tells Alberge.

The stylus was uncovered during an excavation effort centered on a now-lost tributary of the Thames known as the river Walbrook. This area once housed part of Londinium, a Roman settlement that became an important center of commerce and governance following its establishment around 43 A.D.

“This unique inscribed stylus provides a new window on Londinium's international connections and its literary culture,” Marshall says in a statement quoted by Live Science’s Megan Gannon, “but it also provides us with very tangible human connection to the owner and to the person who gave them this affectionate, if inexpensive, gift.”

According to Gannon, MOLA is set to publish a full analysis of the artifact trove in 2020. Until then, interested parties can view a selection of 600 finds at the London Mithraeum Bloomberg Space. The stylus, meanwhile, is on view at the University of Oxford’s Ashmolean Museum, where it is one of more than 300 objects featured in an exhibition titled Last Supper in Pompeii, through January 12, 2020.

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