The Metallic Ink of Herculaneum


A charred scroll excavated at Herculaneum. (Image courtesy of Emmanuel Brun at the European Synchrotron Radiation Facility.)
A charred scroll excavated at Herculaneum. (Image courtesy of Emmanuel Brun at the European Synchrotron Radiation Facility.)

In January 2015, scientists at the European Synchrotron Radiation Facility (ESRF) in Grenoble, France, announced that they had deciphered handwritten text from a series of papyrus scrolls excavated at the Roman town of Herculaneum by passing X-rays through the scrolls’ carbonized remains. Then, in March this year, another secret was revealed. Those same scrolls were discovered to have been written with distinctive metallic ink, once through to have been invented many hundreds of years later, and which boasted – or rather, whispered of – roots in ancient spycraft.

Since time immemorial Roman scribes had employed a system of hollow reed pens, homemade ink, and papyrus scrolls purchased according to length. The ink in which they dipped their pens was a mixture of water, gum arabic, and soot, just as it had been for the Egyptians and Greeks before them. Gum came from the acacia trees found in Asia Minor to the East; soot, on the other hand, could be scraped off burnt cooking utensils, ground down from cremated elephant bones, or prepared in a purpose-built furnace, depending on the motivation and the means of its maker. It was a simple recipe, and a flawed one: the distinguishing feature of carbon ink was that it could be washed off papyrus scrolls with nothing more than a moistened finger. (Martial, a Roman poet of the first century CE, wrote of sending out his books still wet so that discerning patrons could erase poems not to their liking.)

Sometime during the first century, however, things began to change. As the ESRF researchers discovered, scribes at Herculaneum were using a quite different kind of ink no later than 79 CE, when the eruption of Mount Vesuvius choked the life out of the town – an ink with metallic elements in its make-up that is opaque to X-rays. The days of carbon-based ink were numbered.

Until now, the received wisdom was that metal-based ink had become popular only during the third or fourth century CE, popularized by Christian scribes who copied and re-copied the Gospels and other important religious works. To make metallic ink, nutlike tree growths called galls were dried, crushed and infused in rainwater, wine, or beer, before being mixed with sulfate of iron or copper. The acidic gall liquor reacted with the metal sulfate as soon as the two were brought together to form an insoluble pigment that fixed itself on the page, and scribes learned to breathe into their ink jars to replace the air with unreactive carbon dioxide before stoppering them. For ancient writers, metallic ink was a quantum leap forward, as permanent on papyrus as it was on the new-fangled parchment becoming popular with scribes as far afield as Gaul and Britannia.

But the irony of metallic ink is that it may well have grown out of a need for subterfuge rather than brazen permanence. In the third century BCE, a Greek engineer named Philo wrote of what he called “sympathetic ink” made from tree galls and copper sulfate, but these familiar ingredients were to be brought together after their message had been written, not before. In Philo’s scheme, a would-be spy or illicit lover wrote on papyrus using a colorless infusion of crushed tree galls; on receipt, their correspondent washed that same papyrus with a solution of copper sulfate to reveal its hidden message.

Work to decipher the Herculaneum scrolls is still ongoing, and we don’t yet know whether their singular metallic ink is a descendant of Philo’s recipe or something else entirely. But whatever we learn, our understanding of ancient writing practices has already been turned on its head. Metallic ink was used centuries earlier than previously thought, long before Christian monks and scribes turned their hands to it, in a Rome where citizens prayed to household shrines and where the wrath of Vulcan, god of the volcano, was still a thing to be feared.


A baby and a pause (and a vote?) for Shady Characters

I am very happy to announce that my wife Leigh and I have just had a baby boy and, as such, I’ll be taking a break from Shady Characters for a while. Think of it as a pilcrow — the end of one paragraph and the start of another!

In the meantime, I thought I’d point you in the direction of an article in the Deseret News in which Chandra Johnson asks rhetorically: “What do Americans lose if bookstores disappear? More than you think”. I chatted to Chandra about the history of the physical book and how it relates to bookshops — after libraries, our other temples to the book. It was a great opportunity to go beyond the historical content of The Book and, I’m not ashamed to say, Chandra gave me some great ideas to pick up on in my subsequent interview with Heleo’s Mandy Godwin. Have a read of both, or either, and feel free to leave a comment below — is the physical bookshop doomed? What lies in its future?*

Secondly, if you happen to be a member of Goodreads, or you wouldn’t mind becoming one, might I interest you in voting for The Book in the History & Biography category of Goodreads’ Choice Awards 2016? The write-in box for other titles appears at the bottom of the page for Goodreads members only.

See you all in the new year!

*
In fact, if you have any suggestions for articles or interesting punctuational links to share, please feel free to email me via the Contact page or leave a comment below↩︎
And, er, if you’d like something to read in the interim, why not buy a copy or two of a certain very bookish book↩︎

Miscellany № 78: catching up

So: time to catch up! Here are a few links to punctuational goings-on from the past couple of months.


First up, pan-European typefoundry Underware recently took some time to dive into the importance of the pointing hand, or manicule (☞). It’s an old mark, hailing back to the days when the readers of manuscripts and early printed books would draw little pointing hands in the margins to call attention to passages of interest. Though the manicule survived in print, it gradually slid from its previously exalted position, yielding the job of linking footnotes and text to the likes of the asterisk (*) and dagger (†). And yet, in common with the ampersand (&) and the pilcrow (¶), the manicule continues to offer discerning type designers a chance to flex their creative muscles. As Underware’s unnamed writer says in “There you go”,

What many people don’t know, because it’s not easy to spot, is that many type designers enjoy refining many details of their fonts. For example by creating manicules which fit to the style of a font family. A special pointing hand allows extravaganza [sic] typographic subtleties in your book, website, identity or whatever you are making.

What do you say? Is it time to bring the beloved but under-appreciated manicule back into the spotlight?


Next, Cameron Hunt McNabb writes about the evolution of the ellipsis (…) for Slate’s excellent Lexicon Valley blog. In particular, McNabb explains the peculiar medieval practice of “subpuncting”, or adding an ellipsis below an incorrectly copied word:

In medieval manuscripts, we find a mark—sometimes called subpuncting or underdotting—that is used to indicate the omission of a word or phrase, usually when that word or phrase has been copied erroneously. This omission mark involves placing a series of dots under the word that is to be omitted.

Subpuncted words, as McNabb says, were usually left in place — the manuscript equivalent of strikethrough, perhaps, a passive-aggressive jab at the inadequacies of the original copyist. Gradually, however, and in an almost exactly parallel with the rise of print at the expense of manuscripts, subpuncting gave way to the omission of words in favour of ellipses. And yet, McNabb wonders, are the two actually related? The academic spheres of medievalists on the one hand and modern literary scholars do not often overlap and so the nature of the link between subpuncting and the ellipsis remains unclear. Needless to say, Cameron’s article is well worth a read in its entirety!


If the full stop is dying, as has been suggested again and again, it’s taking a hell of a long time to shuffle off this mortal coil. For National Punctuation Day, Katy Steinmetz of Time weighed in with some signs that the patient may be recovering:

“Periods are not dead,” says computational linguist Tyler Schnoebelen, who turned to his own trove of 157,305 text messages to analyze how the final period—a period at the end of a thought or sentence—was being used and shared his initial results exclusively with TIME. “They’re actually doing interesting things.”

As Schnoebelen goes on to explain, those interesting things are not surprising: short text messages are more likely to manage without at least one full stop while longer messages require full stops to help the reader break them into manageable chunks. Where they do occur, those periods mean business:

Texts ending in a period, in Schnoebelen’s analysis, had a disproportionate amount of the words told, feels, feel, felt, feelings, date, sad, seems and talk. By contrast, many of the words that tended to show up in texts that did not end with a period were more casual kinds of speech: lol, u, haha, yup, ok, gonna.

Of course, correlation isn’t causation. Schnoebelen’s work suggests that the full stop is often a participant in sentences intended to convey important sentiments, but he stops short of suggesting that the period itself is the thing that lends them their import. As important as punctuation is, in other words, don’t neglect the words themselves.


Finally, a couple of pieces of self-promotion. First, a few weeks ago I had an enjoyable and wide-ranging chat with Mandy Godwin of Heleo, where we talked about the past, present and future of the book, and in which I used the words “which” and “actually” many times over. You can read the transcript at Heleo — if you do, and if you have any comments, feel free to leave a comment below!

Lastly, I’ll be giving a talk at the St Bride Foundation in March next year. Tickets are on sale now.

Thanks for reading!

The Book: A Cover-to-Cover Exploration at the St Bride Foundation, London, on 23rd March, 2017

It’s some way off yet, but I’m happy to announce that I’ll be giving a talk at the St Bride Foundation here in London on the 23rd of March next year. I’ll be talking about the overlapping histories of writing, printing and books, and signing some books of my own afterwards. Tickets are on sale at £12.50 (£8).

If you live nearby but haven’t been already, the St Bride Foundation is an excellent place to visit. The bookshop will be open as, I’m sure, will some of its fantastic printing exhibits. I look forward to seeing you there in March!


The image featured above is taken from John Clark, The Care of Books  (Cambridge University Press, 1909), fig. 9.

Miscellany № 77: amperbrand

Ampersand tattoo photo by David Hoogland
Hoefler Text ampersands, as modelled by a big ampersand fan. (Image courtesy of David Hoogland on Flickr.)

The ampersand is one of those shady characters that has taken on a life of its own, thriving happily beyond its home in writing and typography. In particular, it exerts an irresistible power over designers, advertisers and others in the business of creating and promoting commercial brands. Fortnum & Mason, for example, recently published a blog post1 explaining “the little-known story of the important symbol sat between our two famous names”.* Crate & Barrel, the American homeware store, once built an advertising campaign around their ampersand;2 AT&T did the same earlier this year.3 As John Brownlee of Fast Co. Design puts it in “Why Designers Love The Ampersand”,

It’s the typographical equivalent of a wedding ring, used to mark permanent partnerships, like Marks & Spencer, Johnson & Johnson, Barnes & Noble, and Ben & Jerry’s.4

An ampersand, in other words, packs considerable significance into its designer-friendly shape. It’s only natural, then, that Washington DC’s &pizza chain of restaurants would appropriate the ampersand for its name and emblem. &pizza, though, have taken their investment in the ampersand a little further than most. Specifically, the company pays for its staff to get ampersand tattoos. As reported by the Washington Post’s Abha Bhattarai 5, more than fifty &pizza employees now have ampersands tattooed somewhere on their bodies, all done courtesy of the chain’s co-founder, Michael Lastoria. As Lastoria explained:

We’re not doing this because we want [employees] to swear their allegiance to us like we’re some insane dictator […] We’re doing it because we listen to our people. They love the symbol, they love the look of it and they love what it stands for.

As I looked into the story a little more, I found that &pizza have since extended their offer of a tattoo to their customers. What I can only hope they call their amperbrand programme began like a loyalty scheme: any customer who spent $1,500 in &pizza restaurants was given the honorary title of “Maverick” and gifted an ampersand tattoo at a Washington tattoo parlour, along with an &pizza- branded jacket and a free photo shoot. (The company later relaxed their not-at-all-insane-or-dictatorial requirement for an ampersand design and let customers choose their own tattoos.)6

Since then, things have evolved yet further. Upon opening a new restaurant in Federal Hill, Baltimore, the first five customers in line were given a free ampersand tattoo and a year’s worth of free pizza.7 Christiana Amarachi Mbakwe of The Baltimore Sun talked to Michael Holt, to one of the fortunate five, to get the inside scoop:

“I wasn’t going to get another tattoo until I heard there was free pizza,” said Holt, a Baltimore native who works in Washington, D.C. and regularly visits &pizza’s branch there. “I thought I was done [with tattoos] forever.”

If the ampersand is the typographical equivalent of a wedding ring, however, &pizza boss Michael Lastoria remains unwilling to put a ring on it. The man who launched a thousand ampersand tattoos (I approximate for dramatic effect) has not joined his customers or employees in getting himself inked. Lastoria has set himself a “secret goal”, he says, after which he promises he will get an ampersand tattoo. What on earth could it be?

1.
\#ONLYFORTNUMS: The Fortnum’s Ampersand,” Fortnum & Mason Journal, 2016. ↩︎
2.
Stuart Elliot, “A Crate & Barrel Campaign With an Emphasis on the &,” New York Times, 2012. ↩︎
3.
Dale Buss, “‘Power of &’: AT&T Highlights Agility in New B2B Marketing Campaign,” brandchannel, 2016. ↩︎
4.
John Brownlee, “Why Designers Love The Ampersand,” FastCo.Design, 2016. ↩︎
5.
Abha Bhattarai, “This local pizza chain pays for employee tattoos — of the company’s logo,” Washington Post, 2016. ↩︎
6.
Jessica Sidman, “Buy 150 Pizzas, And &pizza Will Pay For Your Tattoo,” Washington City Paper, 2014. ↩︎
7.
Christiana Amarachi Mbakwe, “Baltimore &pizza customers get logo tattoos for a year of free pizza,” Baltimore Sun, 2016. ↩︎
*
FYI, Fortnum’s “little-known story” is that the company was once known as Fortnum, Mason & Co. Who knew‽ I am shocked, shocked by this revelation. ↩︎