Stands for Holding Open Papyrus Rolls?

In discussions of the early codex, one often finds statements about the obvious technological superiority of the book with pages over the roll. Sometimes these claims will push further and say that rolls were not only relatively less easy to use than codices, but that they must have been essentially awkward and difficult to handle in general. Users must have always struggled with unwieldy rolls (“hefty and unmanageable things,” according to Pelling, “Plutarch’s Method of Work in the Roman Lives”).

I can see why people make these statements (I’m sure I would have a difficult time navigating a roll myself). But I’ve never found these views very persuasive for a couple reasons. First, if all of your reading experience for your entire adult life involved reading from rolls, you would likely gain a level of dexterity in using them. But beyond that, when we think across generations, the roll format was used for centuries. The accumulated knowledge over that time would probably lead to increasingly effective ways to read and use these rolls. I imagine that by the Roman imperial period, regular readers were very comfortable and adroit users of rolls.

In a comment to my previous post, Stephen Goranson draws attention to an article that may also point in this direction:

Susan Wood, “Literacy and Luxury in the Early Empire: A Papyrus-Roll Winder from Pompeii,” Memoirs of the American Academy in Rome 46 (2001), pp. 23-40

Wood discusses two ivory panels found at Pompeii. The panels are elaborately decorated and have two pairs of holes near the lower edge and a hole in each upper corner. An image of one the panels is below:

Ivory plaque from Pompeii, Naples Archaeological Museum 109905 A; image source: Wikimedia Commons

Similar panels have been found elsewhere in Italy and around the Roman world. A drawing of an example excavated at Ostia was published in 1912:

Wood’s article discusses a possible use for these panels. She compared the panels found at Pompeii with better preserved, though less elaborately decorated, artifacts found at Nîmes and an example now kept at the Fitzwilliam Museum in Cambridge that all show a similar shape and pattern of holes. In addition, these panels have survived together with some additional parts. The set in Cambridge is especially well preserved:

Ivory plaques and rods (papyrus roll holder?) at the Fitzwilliam Museum; image source: The Fitzwilliam Museum, Cambridge

So, it appears that rods passed through the lower sets of holes and knobs were fitted in the upper sets of holes. According to Wood, these artifacts would be used to hold papyrus rolls in place, showing a single column of text and freeing the reader’s hands for other activities (copying the exposed text is one possible use that comes to mind). One end of the papyrus roll would be threaded under the lower rod, over the two upper rods and then under the other lower rod, and then curled until the desired text was exposed over the two upper rods, with the excess roll then curled on either side of the apparatus. It’s reminiscent of (though not identical to) the way rolls of microfilm used to be mounted in some old microfilm readers.

The fairly narrow distance between the two upper rods would reflect the characteristically narrow written columns found especially on deluxe copies of prose texts on rolls.

Wood’s article contains an image of a nice looking replica made by her colleagues, but the key feature (“hands free”) is unfortunately not illustrated by the photograph:

I would very much like to see the model in action with a papyrus roll to see how well it actually functions in keeping the roll open to a particular column without anyone holding the edges. In any event, the interpretation that Wood offers seems at least plausible to me. It’s a fascinating article, and I highly recommend it.

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4 Responses to Stands for Holding Open Papyrus Rolls?

  1. Jan Heilmann says:

    I completely agree with you. For ancient readers who were used to dealing with scrolls, handling scrolls was not a great difficulty. Numerous metaphors that conceptualise reading in ancient texts speak against the hypothesis of a technological inferiority of scrolls. (esp. metaphors and metonymies of motion as well as those metaphors which prove discontinuous or non-linear accesses to scrolls). I show this in great detail in habilitation thesis which will be published soon.

  2. Julia Bale says:

    Reading your thoughts, and Susan’s linked article, gave me great pleasure. We are in Stage 1 COVID lockdown at the moment, so anything that takes you into the pleasurable realms of the mind is very welcome.

  3. Thank you so much for this reference Brent, very fascinating. This makes me think of a passage in one of Seneca’s letters where a “tightly wound” bookroll is mentioned as part of an illustration Seneca is making. It makes me wonder if some type of coiling tool such as this one was used (or envisioned in use in Seneca’s imagination). The account can be found in Ep. 95.2.

    Here is the post where I discuss the passage.

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