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Stylus matters

One of the most beautiful small finds to come from the Anglo-Saxon cemetery on Boneyard is this copper-alloy stylus, or writing tool, from the Latin word stilus, a stake or pointed instrument, which itself came from Ancient Greek (thank you, Wikipedia).

The Sedgeford Stylus (Image copyright: Norwich Castle Museum and Art Gallery)

This one was found during the 1997 season, and found its way through the safe hands of the SHARP Finds team of the time to the Norwich Castle Museum and Art Gallery, where it remains on loan.

What was it used for? As the size and shape suggests, it was an implement for writing, and then erasing, marks on a soft surface such as wet clay or a wax tablet. The pointy end writes, then the flat end smooths out the marks so the tablet can be used again.

Given that most people of this era would not have been literate, finding a stylus on a site indicates the presence of people with education whose function was to write or record. Unusual for a small rural community, you might think. This is a point that has been discussed at SHARP many times over the past 20+ years!

Although such an object could also have been used in a rural economy for tallying up items for sale or trade, for example, a job for which a formal, literate education would not necessarily be needed.

Roman stylus and wax tablets (Image by Peter van der Sluijs, courtesy of Wikipedia)

Dating the stylus is, of course, based on its appearance and decoration. In writing up this example, former SHARP small-finds expert Ray Ludford noted "The copper alloy example is typical of the usual Anglo-Saxon forms and takes as its best parallels styli found at Whitby Abbey, North Yorkshire which is generally dated to the 8th/9thcentury, two from Flixborough, South Humberside, also dated to the 8th/9thcentury and Brandon, Suffolk."

Dates in the 700-900AD range fit precisely with our radiocarbon assessments of the Boneyard burials, so it is more than likely that this lovely little object was owned by, used by, and perhaps even made by one of the people who lived and were interred on our site.

Original site diagram of the stylus (left) and another stylus fragment (right) by Ray Ludford , 1997

Handling beautiful objects like this is all in a day's work for the Finds team at SHARP, though it never loses its excitement.

Finds is a critical part of our operations. Led by long-time SHARPie Naomi Payne, a former county Finds Liaison Officer and now a Finds and Archive Manager, and ably assisted by Bren and Ann, the SHARP Finds team is responsible for processing, sorting, cataloguing, analysing, storing, recording, interpreting (etc etc) everything of significance that comes up from site. Everything - from animal bone to the smallest pottery sherd to the most spectacular finds we ever see, like the coin hoard of 2003.

Our crack Finds team: Bren, Naomi and Ann (L-R) on Open Day 2017

Ann in the Finds Office 2017

The Finds team often doesn't get a lot of recognition, but they have a vital role to play in advising the trench team on what is coming up and what it may mean for the way the site is being investigated. Their initial management of new finds also has major implications for the long-term conservation and preservation of important artefacts.

A few of our small finds

If you are fascinated by history and archaeology, but have no inclination or ability to dig, consider joining us this summer and spending time with the fabulous Finds team. There is always plenty to do, and you'll learn a lot about everything that happens on the trench - and who knows, you may be one of the first people to see and handle a lovely little item like our stylus.

And speaking of which, this small and ancient object is destined for great things. Later this year it will be one of the exhibits at the British Museum's Anglo-Saxon Kingdoms major winter exhibition. Drop in and visit it - we will be!

To find out more about volunteering at SHARP, in trench or out, visit the volunteering page on our website here. But hurry - we're up and running in four short weeks!


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