Letter by Letter – Traces of Reading and Writing

Aboa Vetus
6.12.2013−16.8.2015
Kirjain kerrallaan -näyttelyn logo
Kirjain kerrallaan -näyttelyn logo

The exhibition Letter by Letter – Traces of Reading and Writing tells about the history of literacy in light of material culture, especially archaeological objects. The exhibition opens up the literary culture of the cultured classes and focuses on the contexts in which writings, notes and inscriptions were used in people’s day-to-day life.

Literacy – the ability to read and write – is often taken for granted. These basic skills nevertheless have a history and culture of their own. In this case, we are referring to the progress of literacy, to the change during which literary culture first reached the cultured classes, who were a minority, and then gradually also spread to other sections of society. The exhibition Letter by Letter highlights observations from the history and interpretations of literary development in Finland in the wider European context. This exhibition covers the period from the Middle Ages up until the 19th century.

Markings intended to be temporary, or people’s efforts to learn to read, for example, do not leave any immediate physical traces. This exhibition therefore aims to make the non-tangible traces visible too, by approaching the theme from a variety of angles. Book fittings, markings on bricks or dishes, or a burgher’s medieval implements for notemaking are all like clues in a detective story. By following them you will be able to step into a fascinating story. This time the focus is on the artefacts with which markings, writings and notes have been made, not on books and documents.

The artefacts have been compiled from different parts of Finland for the first time in this composition. New interpretations of older archaeological finds have also been made.

Note making

In meetings of the town council or when inspecting a cargo of a merchant ship there was no opportunity to write using ink on parchment. Instead, notes were taken and drafts were made on wax tablets. The surface of the wax tablets could be easily erased for further notes.

In the Middle Ages, wax tablets were used by all those involved with writing. Tablets have been found in archaeological excavations in places that can be linked to the bourgeois, monasteries, Crown and Church administration as well as to schoolchildren. In a commercial town such as Turku, the bourgeois were a typical group of people that used wax tablets. Making notes, particularly in foreign trade and wholesale trade, was important because the amounts bought and sold could be substantial. The merchant used the tablet to write down the main points to aid his memory: the product quantities, debts and receivables.

In negotiations and meetings wax tablets served as tools for note making. In town council meetings, for example, a scribe could make notes on wax tablets and transcribe them in ink only after the meeting.

Welcome to the world of notes, writing implements, owner’s marks and runes!

The objects in the exhibition are from the following collections:
The Museum Centre of Turku, Ålands landskapsregering , Helsinki City Museum, North Karelia Museum, National Library of Finland,  National Museum of Finland, Satakunta Museum, Rymättylä Local Museum, Paimio Local Heritage Museum,  Muzeum Archeologiczno-Historyczne w Elblągu (Poland), Lödöse Museum (Sweden), Stichting Archeologie Hoeksche Waard (NL).

Medieval styli from Åland. Objects: Ålands Museibyro. Photo: Aboa Vetus & Ars Nova, Jari Nieminen.
Book corner from Kökar Monastery positioned on the corner of a modern book. Object: Ålands Museibyro. Photo: Aboa Vetus & Ars Nova, Jari Nieminen.
Illustration for the Letter by letter exhbition. The medieval school boys. Drawing Riikka
Sacred texts were read aloud in Bridgettine convents. Drawing: Riikka Soininen, Aboa Vetus & Ars Nova.
Book clasps depicting animal figures from Koroinen, Turku. The collection of National Museum of Finland. Photo: Aboa Vetus & Ars Nova, Jari Nieminen.
A man inscribing. Drawing: Rikka Soininen, Aboa Vetus & Ars Nova.
Calendar sticks were used to date annual events. Drawing: Rikka Soininen, Aboa Vetus & Ars Nova.
Calendar stick from Joutsa. The collection of National Museum of Finland. Photo: Aboa Vetus & Ars Nova, Jari Nieminen.
Book corner from Kökar Monastery. Object: Ålands Museibyro. Photo: Aboa Vetus & Ars Nova, Jari Nieminen.
Stylus from Kökar Monastery. Object: Ålands Museibyro. Photo: Aboa Vetus & Ars Nova, Jari Nieminen.
In the Middle Ages, writing equipment was carried by hanging it on the belt. Drawing: Rikka Soininen, Aboa Vetus & Ars Nova.
Cap of an ink bottle from Koroinen, Turku. The collection of National Museum of Finland. Photo: Aboa Vetus & Ars Nova, Jari Nieminen.
Illustration for the Letter by letter exhbition. Drawing Riikka Soininen
Illustration for the Letter by letter exhbition. Learning how to read. Drawing Riikka Soininen
Wax tablets from Elblag, Poland. Muzeum Archeologiczno-historyczne w Elblągu. Photo: Aboa Vetus & Ars Nova, Jari Nieminen.