A Stone Talking to Itself


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pis: tiú:
íív: kúrú:
púiiu: baíteís:
aadiieís: ahfineís:

Who are you?
I am a stone.
Whose?
Baitis Aadiis Afinis’s.

(Oscan inscription on stone. Altilia, Italy. c. 150-90 BC. Imagines Italicae: Saepinum 2, Sabellische Texte: Sa 31)

It’s not often that I’m tempted to describe an inscription as “cute”, but I’ve always found this short Oscan dialogue completely adorable. (That’s probably not a very academic thing to say.)

We don’t know exactly what this stone was used for or why it was inscribed. It’s small and fits easily in the hand, and shows a certain amount of wear, especially to one spot on the reverse. This has lead some to think of it as a “door-knocker” – though I don’t know whether we have much evidence that people used a special device for knocking on doors in the south of ancient Italy. The dialogue identifying the owner makes it most similar to the texts written on sling-shot bullets, which often have the owner’s name on (or a helpful message like “Fuck off”), but this stone is quite a big larger than a normal sling-shot bullet. More recently, other scholars have seen Baitis’s stone as a small funerary inscription marking a grave, but its language and size are unlike any other Oscan funerary inscription.

Personally, I’m tempted to see it as a bit of idle carving done when the stone cutter was bored, or maybe as a silly present to give his girlfriend. I say “stone cutter” – in fact, it’s hard to know what kind of person Baitis Aadiis Afinis was. It’s relatively rare at this time, though not impossible, for someone other than an aristocrat to have three names (like the Roman praenomen, nomen and cognomen), so he might in fact have been fairly wealthy. All the more reason to see him as a guy with time on his hands?

Linguistically, the text is unique in showing us a small glimpse of an everyday conversation (if you view a conversation with a stone as an everyday activity). In fact, I think it’s the only time the word “I” is ever used in Oscan – partly because Oscan, like Latin and now Italian, doesn’t need to include a pronoun before a verb to be understandable, but also because inscriptions in the first person are uncommon.

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8 thoughts on “A Stone Talking to Itself

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  1. No, I think it works best if it belongs to the person inside the house. It *belongs* to Baitis, who of course never uses it – hence the unhelpfulness of the çonversation’ between the person inside (who I called the ówner’ above, but I see I wasn’t very clear- presumably Baitis) and the doorknocker. Baitis wants to know who’s using the knocker, but instead the knocker itself answers and gives true but useless answers.

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  2. The doorknocker thing does make sense – but does this interpretation rely on the stone being carried around by the person it belongs to, rather than belonging to the owner of the house? (I think this is what you mean?) The inscription only “tells” you who is knocking if it names the knocker and not the person inside the house. So this relies on a particular interpretation of how doorknockers would be used, and different to Michael’s interpretation above – though I don’t know which is right.

    As for íív… yes, I think that meaning still needs to be adequately explained. But given the (apparent) conversion, it’s very tempting. “Who are you?” “(I am) this stone” is also quite funny though.

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  3. Although I have strong doubts about íív meaning I. I don’t think anyone’s provided a good explanation for how to get there from *ego. From the photos, the final digamma looks a bit hard to read. If that’s the case I’d much prefer something like ííú, which would mean ‘this’- ‘this stone’.

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  4. If it is a doorknocker that would make a lot of sense of the inscription: it’s a joke, and rather a sophisticated one, with two twists. It’s performing a conversation following its use, but each turn of the conversation frustrates the point of the a doorknocker, which is to announce someon’s presence: *knock knock*. Who are you? I’m a stone. Whose stone? [i.e. Who is using you]. I’m Baitis’ [i.e. the owner, not the user, who is presumably inside, asking the questions].

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  5. Good point – for some reason I’d imagined a “door-knocker” to belong to a person (i.e. to be carried around) rather than to a house (to be left by a particular door), but your interpretation makes more sense. Do you know of any sources that mention door-knockers like these?

    I’d say it’s a good size and shape to fit comfortably in the hand – it’s about the size of a man’s palm. I have a picture somewhere of it being held, I think.

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  6. One point in favor of doorknocker: it would have to be left outside to be used, and an unlabeled one might easily be stolen. Putting the owner’s name on it would be very like the modern practice of painting names or addresses on trash cans so the neighbors won’t ‘accidentally on purpose’ take the wrong one. If you have a really handy just-the-right-size rock, why not label it? When you say “it’s small and easily fits the hand” do you just mean that it’s small enough to grasp, or is it just the right size and shape to fit a hand comfortably? I believe modern hand grenades are sized and shaped for best fit, and the same would apply to ancient stone axes. A really well-fitted-to-the-hand stone might be hard to replace and worth labeling.

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