At the end of June I was in York for a few days doing research, arriving on a Sunday morning to spend the day getting oriented (priority #1: non-touristy sources of food) and exploring the city. Mon-Wed were devoted to archival research with some lunch breaks that included enormous ice cream cones and basking in the garden next to the local museum. The museum was my favorite attraction because the medieval life exhibit included a clump of dirty hair under plexiglas with absolutely no explanation other than a sign reading ‘HAIR!’
One afternoon I had some free time and wandered into a nice antiques shop where I found, amongst Roman coins and Norman belt buckles, what was described as a 13th-14th century bone dip pen found in the Thames. It was really lovely—very smooth with a creamy, light brown patina. One end was carved and polished into a simple nib shape and the other end left with the joint intact. It was also slightly curved and fit very naturally into my hand. I wasn’t quite sure about it, though, because I’d never heard of a bone dip pen, only quill and reed. It also didn’t have a groove to hold ink, so I thought it might actually be a stylus for wax tablets. But it was very inexpensive (I can imagine the antique dealer’s thought process: ‘This is really cool. But who on earth is looking for an old bone dip pen? Better price it low or it’ll never move.’ He’d definitely never met me.) so I bought it, thinking that if it turned out to just be an old broken bone I wouldn’t be out much, but if it was authentic I’d have gotten a deal on something really special that’s related to my career. After all, what are the odds I’d ever run across something similar?
Back at home I got in touch with Alan Cole of the Museum of Writing, who had given me quill pen cutting lessons in December. He took a look at my pen and agreed that the antique shop’s analysis was probably correct, even though there was no groove for ink. Wax styli are usually made with a different point, and the Museum of Writing contains Roman and medieval pens in the same shape that are made of other materials such as metal, and they also lack a groove. But he’s never seen anything comparable to mine made from bone. While he couldn’t verify the date, he said that there was no reason to think it wasn’t medieval, or potentially older. (In the shop it was grouped with other medieval items found at the same time in the river, so I assume that was how it was dated.) While there’s the possibility it could be some other artifact, neither of us could think of anything really similar. The closest thing would be a medieval hairpin, but those are usually carved solidly with more tapering points.