Our Equipment

Reading Exercise

Ancient books were written by hand on papyrus rolls (volumina) several meters long; we could not face doing quite that much copying, so our papyri are much shorter, usually only the size of an A4 page. But they are made of real Egyptian papyrus (purchased from the Roman shop), and all the text on them has been handwritten by dedicated schoolroom volunteers. Some of those volunteers had poor handwriting, and some made mistakes, so some papyri are not that easy to read – but that is the authentic ancient experience. Papyrus is stronger than paper but still pretty fragile, so many of our older papyri have cracks, which we repair by gluing strips of papyrus to the back of the sheet (fortunately ancient papyrus rolls were only written on one side). Although these repairs are totally authentic they make the papyri harder to use, so we hope participants will be extra gentle with our papyri to avoid the need for more and more repairs.

One of our typical papyri (photo by Dal Singh, Reading School Community Relations Manager)
Our longest papyrus (about 4 feet long, containing Latin and Greek in a fourth-century script – for the very bravest participants)

Writing exercises

Romans used wax tablets (tabellae ceratae) for writing letters, business documents, and school exercises; although small enough to fit comfortably in one hand the tablets usually held a lot of text, because the ancients wrote very small. The writing implement is a stylus (stilus), a pointed piece of metal, bone or wood; most of our styluses are made of iron and not quite as sharply pointed as the ancient ones, to avoid accidents. The tablets and metal styluses come from the Roman shop, but we also have some wooden styluses that we make ourselves by sharpening twigs with a pencil sharpener. The wax is beeswax, with a bit of black dye. Tablets can be erased by smoothing the wax with the back end of the stylus; this was easier in the hot climate of Roman Egypt than it is in Britain, because wax is softer when it’s warm, but fortunately the schoolroom tends to get pretty warm. Erasing becomes difficult when pupils press too hard with the stylus and gouge out the wax; under those circumstances we heat a stylus in a candle flame and melt the wax back into position, sometimes adding more. With this loving treatment many of our original tablets from 2014 are still in fine shape despite getting a lot of use.

Tablet and stylus in use

Ancient children who could not afford tablets often wrote on pieces of broken pottery, known as ostraca (ostraca). Ostraca are best known from the Classical practice of ostracism, in which people voted for whom to exile by scratching names into the glaze of pieces of broken pottery. But such scratching is difficult, and schoolchildren more often used unglazed pottery, on which they could write with ink. Ostraca were free and easy to get by going to the rubbish dumps outside most towns; teachers sometimes set up schools by the dumps because of the ready supply. Our ostraca mostly come from the skip behind Homebase in Oxford, whose manager kindly allowed us to have the flowerpots, tiles, etc. that got broken during delivery; some also come from friends who donated broken garden pots. The ink washes off and they can be re-used immediately, even before drying; we don’t understand why this is, but we appreciate it very much!

Ostraca in use (photo by Dal Singh, Reading School Community Relations Manager)

Schoolroom participants write on the ostraca using dip pens (calami); in Roman Egypt these would usually have been made from reeds, and we have some reed pens (purchased from the Roman shop). But eventually Alan Cole, curator of the Museum of Writing in London, was kind enough to teach us how to make dip pens ourselves, and therefore most of our pens are made by us – not from reeds, since the ones on the university campus don’t seem to be strong enough, but from the bamboo that rather conveniently grows in the garden of Assistant Schoolroom Director Emma Aston. We have also made some quill pens (from feathers naturally shed by free-range geese); these are beautiful but were not often used in Roman Egypt, so we rarely deploy them in the schoolroom.

Reed pens

The ink (atramentum) we use with these pens is not actually ink, but waterbase paint diluted to the consistency of ink; this is a little harder to use than real ink would be, but much easier to wash off. (It can still stain clothing, though, which is an additional reason to make sure all modern clothing is covered by your tunic when you’re in the schoolroom.) It is always black, since that is the only colour in which the Romans wrote. We store the ink in replica ancient bottles so that we can shake it just before handing it out, since the paint and water tend to separate if allowed to stand. When in use, the ink sits in replica Roman inkwells (atramentaria) from the Roman shop; by design these are very hard to tip over, but some people can manage it, so please be careful around the inkwells. Sometimes we are lucky enough to be joined by inkwell specialist Hella Eckhardt, who explains the different kinds of inkwells used in antiquity; she is not very excited by ours, which are perfectly ordinary, but as with all aspects of the schoolroom ordinary is what we’re aiming at.

Teacher pouring ink into an inkwell (photo by Dal Singh, Reading School Community Relations Manager)

In order to try to contain the ink we issue pen-wipers (panni) with every pen; these were also used in ancient schools, for the same reasons. To achieve maximum authenticity (and effectiveness, as worn cloth is more absorbent than new cloth) our pen-wipers really are pieces cut from old clothing, but we regularly wash them (on a very gentle cycle so as not to remove all the ink stains) despite knowing that that is not authentic at all. And then after each washing we have to trim off the loose threads – what a lot of work for an old rag!

Pen-wipers drying on the Director’s clothesline between being washed and being trimmed.


Maths lessons use dried beans (calculi) on counting boards (tabulae) with Roman numerals; we have a variety of these made of stone and wood. Most of them we made ourselves (you could too – they are very simple), but the one below was purchased from the Roman Shop (no longer available).

Counting boards and beans (photo by Alex Wickenden)

Occasionally the maths teachers also demonstrate use of the abacus (abacus), using a brass replica purchased from the Roman Shop (but no longer available).

Children using the abacus

Other equipment

Teaching is thirsty work, so sometimes the teachers get the classroom slave to bring them water, carried in a replica Roman jug and poured into replica Roman cups (from the Roman shop).

Roman jug and cups

The schoolroom walls are made of white fabric (in the case of the mobile version, suspended from a fruit cage consisting of 36 six-foot aluminium tubes) painted with windows onto ancient Egypt. The Egyptian scenes were created by artist Rosemary Aston (mother of Emma Aston) on the basis of ancient wall paintings and mosaics of Nilotic scenes. Having such a beautiful view is probably not authentic – archaeologists think Egyptian schools usually had few or no windows, to keep out the searing sunlight – but we couldn’t resist. On the other sides the walls are painted with poetry for participants to copy, which is more authentic. The poems are by Shakespeare, Tennyson, Housman, and Carlyle (sometimes also Keats and Milton); these reflect the spirit of ancient education better than a translation of a Latin or Greek poem would, by being immediately accessible as great poetry in a somewhat old-fashioned version of the participants’ native language (but not so old-fashioned as to be indecipherable when written without word division). Most of the poems have improving morals, since that was a feature of ancient education, but in a spirit of modern non-judgementalism the morals of the different poems sometimes conflict. For the on-campus version of the ancient schoolroom we can cover the floor with straw, though as this gives some people sneezing fits schools sometimes prefer to skip the straw.

Two of the windows: can you find the hippopotamus?
Poetry on the walls

Across the entrance to the schoolroom is a curtain, as was the case for grammarians’ schools in antiquity.

The classroom slave (a.k.a. the Director) guarding the entrance (photo by Alex Wickenden)

The main items of schoolroom furniture are chairs for the teachers; ancient teachers’ status was shown by the fact that they had chairs to sit in, while the pupils sat on the ground (often with some on a built-in bench around the walls, which we have stopped trying to replicate as it leads to arguments about who gets to sit on it – though such arguments are totally authentic). For off-campus schoolrooms we normaly have to ask the school to supply chairs, but for on-campus events we use ones that look rather like a Roman sella curulis but are actually Damascus chairs acquired in Turkey about a century ago by an uncle of the Director. Neither teachers nor pupils have desks, since that would not be authentic, but the maths teachers have low tables.

Damascus chairs and palm-frond baskets

The school equipment is kept in baskets; some of these are replicas of palm-frond tote baskets found in Bar Kochba (from the Roman shop), and others are baskets we have been given. The papyri are stored in cylinders plaited from willow by a neighbour of the Director, Bob Summers.

Papyri in cylinders (and tablets in bags)