Roman pen – inscribed with joke – found at London building site

Roman stylus inscribed with an amusing souvenir message. 📷 Juan Jose Fuldain/MOLA

 “I went to Rome in AD 70 and all I got you was this lousy pen.”

We’re all familiar with jokey souvenir gifts and so too, it seems, were the Romans. During recent excavations in the City of London, archaeologists uncovered an iron stylus inscribed with an amusing message.

Dating to around AD 70, just a few decades after Roman London was founded, the message sounds just like something you’d find at any cheap souvenir shop today:

“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,” it reads.

That’s basically the same as “I went to Rome and all I got you was this lousy pen”!

However, as some have pointed out, there’s an extra barb to the message – “I bring you a welcome gift with a sharp point that you may remember me.” Sounds like a cheeky (and ever so slightly threatening) way to make sure you don’t get forgotten!

When it was first discovered, corrosion made the message hard to read, but after careful work by conservators, it was finally deciphered.

The stylus was discovered by Museum of London Archaeology during excavations for Bloomberg’s European headquarters next to Cannon Street station, on the bank of the river Walbrook, a now-lost tributary of the Thames.

The Bloomberg dig took place between 2010 and 2014 and uncovered some 14,000 artefacts, which archaeologists are still working through.

Other finds included more than 400 waxed writing tablets, which offer insights into the first decades of Roman rule in Britain.

“The tablets are hugely interesting documents, largely relating to legal and business matters, while the stylus is an exceptionally personal object, which you can pick up on the amount of affection and good humour” ” said Michael Marshall, a senior Roman finds specialist, in The Guardian.

The stylus provides a rare glimpse into the way traders, soldiers and officials posted across the Roman Empire kept in touch with friends and family, and strangely delightful to think that even 2,000 years ago, people found it funny to bring each other amusing souvenirs.

The stylus is now on display at the Ashmolean Museum in Oxford until January 2020.

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Written by Maiya Pina-Dacier

Head of Community at DigVentures, Maiya digs with a trowel in one hand, and a Twitter feed in the other. She reports on all our discoveries live from the trenches, and keeps our Site Hut full of the latest archaeology news. Got a story? Just drop her a line...

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