‘Experimental epigraphy’ at Greenwich riverwall

There’s an especially fun-sounding area of archaeology termed ‘experimental‘, which pretty much means actually trying things out to see if your ideas about how things might have worked might actually be right. I don’t get to play though, as my PhD research uses epigraphy (I’m looking at some particular Roman inscriptions  to learn about the people who had them made and feature in them). And as with epigraphy more generally, this tends to need exactitude rather than experimentation.

Experimental Epigraphy 037

At Greenwich however, carved into the riverwall here by the ruined steps* below the Trinity Hospital almshouses, is this curious inscription. This gave me the idea for a bit of an epigraphy experiment, particularly now it’s accessible again – it’s not been possible to get near it for a while, as the large stones at the top were loose, but they have now fallen down and nothing else looks likely to fall. Usually the inscription is covered in riverweed but it was scrubbed clean during our Thames Discovery Programme fieldwork last week.

Experimental Epigraphy 012

The text is carved into two stones that were used first elsewhere, before being taken as building material for the riverwall, and the (very) little research I’ve done so far hasn’t yet turned up where these originally came from. This re-use does explain why the inscription appears incomplete, so we don’t quite know what it says, and I’m not even sure at this point which way round the stones go – there is a big space on the left-hand side of the text on the left stone, which may be because the inscription starts part way along, and therefore that the stones are the right way round (as otherwise this would make too large a gap in the lines of text),  or it may be that words have been eroded from the stone and they might be reversed. There is also a nice ‘v’ used for ‘u’, which derives from written Latin, and I hope might help indicate its date.


As you can see above, the stone to the right has been cut through a letter – almost certainly a ‘P’ – on its left hand side. It also continues under the wooden post on the right, where it appears again to have been cut off short.

With the inscription having been cleaned up, it seemed a good occasion to also test out whether it might be possible take a ‘squeeze’ of it – basically make a record by slapping a piece of wet paper onto the stone and tapping it all over with a brush so the paper takes the impression of the carving. The paper is let dry in situ so the impression remains, making a 1:1 scale record, and capturing 3D details that a photograph may not.

Squeezes also function as back-up copies of actual inscriptions and can be studied away from the site – helpful in this case, as the inscription spends much time submerged in the Thames and is slowly eroding. So I decided to have a go, with the expectation (correctly, as it turned out) of little success, but hoping to learn enough to repeat the exercise more successfully later in the year.

To take a squeeze properly requires a special – and expensive – ‘squeeze’ brush and filter paper, although according to McLean you can in extremis use any kind of paper, even loo roll, and a scrubbing brush. I thought it might be useful to test out the not needing expensive kit idea to see if this is feasible for a non-expert like me, and where there is less money available, and also to see whether it is is possible in the generally damp and windy conditions of the foreshore, and under some time pressure from the tide, given you need to leave the paper in situ to dry.

McLean advises using a heavy gauge paper for deep-cut letters – which the riverwall inscription has – so I took three kinds – two very kindly supplied by Helen and Martin of the Greenwich FROGs – and some lining paper from home. I also took a bottle of clean water to use to take the actual squeeze, as the Thames is still filthy, and any squeeze will always need to be handled carefully with respect to hygiene. After selecting my scrubbing brush of choice from our kit, I set off.

Experimental Epigraphy 004

The tide leaves us somewhere between three and four hours to work, which is plenty of time, although there is this bit of a pinch point between the riverstairs  access to the foreshore, and the inscription down towards the pier, and I prefer to be generous in leaving time to walk back.

Experimental Epigraphy 007        Experimental Epigraphy 017

The stones were still pretty mucky despite being already scrubbed, so I applied the first paper simply to clean them. I then made the first of two attempts to take a squeeze using different papers, with time being too short to experiment with the lining paper I brought.

The first problem I had anticipated, that there is no means of attaching the paper to the riverwall, as is recommended. I hoped though that the paper might be persuaded to stick to the wet stone, and my attempts suggest this may be possible, although it will always be difficult given the foreshore tends to be breezy.

More serious was my inability to work the paper into the deep-cut lettering without the brush making holes in the paper. I’m not sure if the cause was my inexperience, the brush or the paper but I shall need to think about this further before returning for a more serious attempt in summer.

The final problem is that the riverwall remained damp and the paper could not dry in situ, so the impression became indistinct as it was removed to dry, not helped by being unable to protect it fully from the wind. Again, I haven’t yet a solution to this, although the wall does tend to be drier in summer and it may be easier later in the year.

So, much to think about, and I very much welcome suggestions, particularly in respect of the three main problems I need to resolve before trying again in the summer.

*or possibly a ramp.

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One Response to ‘Experimental epigraphy’ at Greenwich riverwall

  1. Pingback: Experimental epigraphy: the Greenwich inscription revisited | The word muses

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