A new cache of well-preserved Roman writing tablets, some of whose contents have already been deciphered, has been discovered at the Roman fort of Vindolanda.
Around 25 fragile, postcard-sized pieces of wood – many barely 2mm thick – had survived in damp, anaerobic earth at the auxiliary fort just south of Hadrian’s Wall. They are thought to represent part of a single archive that was discarded towards the end of the 1st century AD.
The tablets are so well-preserved that the tie-holes and v-shaped notches that enabled pages to be bound together – typically in pairs – and sealed for sending can still be seen. Some are completely intact, and others have partial or whole confronting pages – exceptional finds, as they provide the best chance of ink writing surviving.
Sure enough, text does survive on at least some of the new finds, some of it still clear that it can be read without the infrared photography techniques that are usually employed to decipher such discoveries (such as the writing tablets – mostly legal and commercial documents – that were found at the Bloomberg site in London – see CA 317). Among the writing that has been interpreted is the name of a man called Masclus, who is already known to the Vindolanda Trust as he also appears in another letter from the hundreds of tablets that were found at Vindolanda in the 1970s and 1980s. In that missive he was asking his commanding officer to send more beer to his outpost, and here he seems to have been applying for leave (commeatus).
It is hoped that as more tablets are read, further names – both familiar and new – can be added to the list of characters known from Vindolanda. The finds are now undergoing careful conservation work and infrared photography ahead of expert translation, to reveal the full extent of their contents – and what new light they may shed on the fort and on wider Roman Britain.
Dr Andrew Birley, CEO of the Vindolanda Trust and Director of Excavations, said: ‘I was fortunate enough to be involved when my father, Dr Robin Birley, excavated a bonfire site of Vindolanda tablets in 1992 and I had hoped, but never truly expected, that the day might come when we would find another hoard of such well-preserved documents again during a day on our excavations. In the last three or four years we have found perhaps 75 more tablets on the site but these new ones, coming from one space, one period, and probably one archive, are the most important – they have the potential to give us a really fleshed-out view of the personalities that inhabited the fort. In terms of information and tablets, this was our best single day we have had on the excavation since 1992.’
He added: ‘It was great to hear more from Masclus – it may be that more of these tablets were written by him, and we hope to tease out more information over the coming 3-4 months – but there is also a chance that a whole new set of people may emerge from their contents. We have only picked out fragments of text so far, but you can see phrases like ‘farewell, my brother’; these are letters, not lists or legal documents – they have quite a different flavour to, say, the Bloomberg tablets. One of the tablets may hold more official information, though; while most of them are on birch or elder, this uses oak – basically like using very very posh paper, you save it for important information – like the military strength report known from earlier such finds. Oak goes black in the ground so we will have to wait for it to be photographed before we can find out what it says, but I am very excited.’
‘Some of the tablets are fragmentary, but there are enough pieces that we will be able to reconstruct good texts from them, and their contents will tell us a lot about life at the fort – above all, these are the voices of the little people, of everyday people on the frontier – insights into lives that are otherwise completely lost to history,’ he said. ‘Texts like these reveal their hopes and dreams, what they are complaining about – you can hear their voices across almost 2,000 years.’
Dr Robin Birley, who also discovered tablets at Vindolanda in 1970s and 1980s, added: ’There is nothing more exciting than reading these personal messages from the distant past.’
For more information on Vindolanda, its tablets, and the current excavation, visit www.vindolanda.com. We will bring you more information about these new discoveries in the upcoming issue of Current Archaeology (CA 330) – watch this space!
All images are copyright of the Vindolanda Trust.