Experiments to Produce Roman Styli by Forging and Machining

By Sim, David | Antiquity, December 1997 | Go to article overview

Experiments to Produce Roman Styli by Forging and Machining


Sim, David, Antiquity


As has often been the case before, the actual manufacture era distinctive class of ancient artefact offers valuable insight about the realities of an ancient craft knowledge.

Styli were made of various materials, bronze, iron and bone, and those of iron were probably among the cheapest. The fact that they were forged not cast, as were the bronze ones, means that the addition of decoration was time consuming and, in consequence, is relatively rare, although corrosion has probably destroyed what decoration there was in some cases.

MANNING 1985:85

Iron styli are relatively common; several types have been identified and classified (Manning 1985: 85). Produced over a considerable period of time, they were an essential part of everyday life to many Romans. Although most iron styli are in the corroded condition described by Manning, those preserved in the special anaerobic conditions at Vindolanda show a considerable amount of applied surface decoration. Study has shown that the decoration may have been applied by the use of a lathe rather than by the use of hand tools. To establish a possible method of manufacture and assess the time needed to produce iron styli, a set of experiments was conducted to make a copy of a Roman stylus from Colliton Park, Dorchester, Dorset (collection Ref: 1697 C; t.11.37; lab number 127; [ILLUSTRATION FOR FIGURE 1 OMITTED]).

By reconstructing the conditions of a Roman blacksmith's forge and using no modern electrical equipment, it has been possible to arrive at an accurate figure for the times to produce simple styli and to hypothesize possible production methods.

As the original stylus is badly corroded, it is impossible to visualize it in its original condition. Before making a reproduction it was necessary to produce a detailed working drawing, defining both form and dimensions of its three parts:

the eraser end [ILLUSTRATION FOR FIGURE 2 OMITTED]; the body [ILLUSTRATION FOR FIGURE 3 OMITTED]; the scriber end [ILLUSTRATION FOR FIGURE 4 OMITTED].

FIGURE 5 is the stylus complete.

After careful measurement with a vernier calliper, drawings were made of each element. The existing body of the stylus has a roughly rectangular section which may be due to corrosion. As Manning (1985: [ILLUSTRATION FOR FIGURE 24 OMITTED]) does not show styli with rectangular sections, the body was made in the form of an elongated truncated cone [ILLUSTRATION FOR FIGURE 3 OMITTED]. FIGURE 1 shows the original stylus to have a marked curve, the reason for which is uncertain. Robin Birley (pers. comm. 1994) states that similar curves seen in styli found at Vindolanda result from damage during excavation; most of the styli found at Vindolanda are perfectly straight. It was decided that the curve was introduced after manufacture, not in the original design.

No metallurgical analysis could be done to determine the composition of the material because of the damage that would inflict. The stylus is magnetic and the surface has a deposit of what appears to be iron oxide (rust). A ferrous metal from the Roman period can only be wrought iron or steel; since a stylus is designed to be used on soft wax, the use of steel that can be hardened is unnecessary. Even though the stylus was only used on soft wax, continual use would eventually dull the point. If the point was left soft, the owner could have easily re-sharpened it himself, using almost any stone, but to sharpen a hardened point would have required special skills.

Production method

Mild steel was used for the first attempts to make a stylus. The objectives were to determine:

i the minimum man hours required; ii the minimum fuel consumption needed; and iii the minimum material consumption. No surface decoration was to be applied.

After forging, the whole surface was cleaned back down to bare metal using a file, the tool available in the Roman period.

Equipment

Forge, anvil, straight peen hammer, hot set, one pair of tongs, charcoal fuel. …

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