‘Linguists just aren’t interested in tile stamps.’ I remember making that point years ago to Michael Crawford when collaborating on the Imagines Italicae project, and now my words come back to haunt me. It turns out that tile stamps, imprinted on wet clay during the manufacture of roof-tiles, can be more interesting —linguistically, epigraphically, and for social history—than I had imagined. On our recent trip to Calabria, the Greek in Italy project members spent quite a lot of time looking at tile stamps, most memorably in the deposito of the Museo Regionale Interdisciplinare di Messina (thanks to the extraordinary kindness of Dottore Agostino Giuliano and his colleagues, who gave up their Saturday morning to let us in and to show us around). The Messina collection includes Greek, Oscan and Latin tile stamps alongside each other, but most publications separate out the material into different languages. Seeing all the stamps together, it is not always easy at first glance to be sure which language they are in, particularly if the stamp is well-worn or broken. We spent an excited 15 minutes thinking that we had found a new tile stamp with Oscan written in the Greek alphabet, since it ended in the letter M. Greek words don’t end in M, but Oscan genitive plurals do, and one way of saying that the tile is the property of a particular community is to use a genitive plural—the name of the Mamertini, the mercenaries who captured the port of Messina at the beginning of the third century BCE, appear on tile stamps in the genitive plural, both in Greek (Μαμερτίνων), and in Oscan written in Greek (Μαμερτινουμ). But then Nick pointed out that we were reading the text upside down, and it was a familiar Greek text after all.
Some of the other Greek tile stamps were also puzzling. One clearly reads ΡΗΠΙΝΟΝ ΟΡΘΟΝ – the first word can be corrected on the basis of other stamps to ΡΗΓΙΝΟΝ, i.e. Ῥηγίνων ‘of the Rhegians’, showing that someone had got a tile from Rhegium (modern Reggio Calabria) on the other side of the straits of Messina, but what of the second word? At first sight this appears to mean the ‘true’ Rhegians, as opposed to outsiders or imposters, but the Greek word ὀρθός isn’t used of people without further specification like this, and it is probably better to think that this is the name, Orthon, of the tile manufacturer.
What were tile stamps for, and who read them? It seems that stamps could have different audiences and functions. Latin tile stamps from Veleia and Oscan tile stamps from Bouianum, for example, include the name of magistrates, and Crawford argues that this is so that the purchaser of a tile would know its age, since a tile that had lasted over winter was more valuable. In other areas of the ancient world, stamps indicated that the tiles belong to a sanctuary or a public building. The marking of tiles with the genitive plural, as in ‘of the Rhegians’ or ‘of the Mamertini’ is limited (in Italy) to Greek texts from the south, and the only peoples of Italy who adopted this practice are the Mamertini and the Tauriani (whose bricks and tiles have been found in several areas just north of Reggio). So did the Mamertini abandon Oscan as they became Greek speakers, or did they start stamping in Greek and then switch to Oscan? Or was no one that much bothered about which language to use? Going to the trouble of making a stamp and marking tiles is unlikely to have been a trivial matter, and it seems to me that adopting the Greek alphabet and using the Greek style genitive plural shows that the Mamertini took a conscious decision to make the Greek practice their own. There is more to tile stamps than you might think.