Roman documents discovered

Probably the most important – and certainly the most dramatic discoveries made in Roman Britain in the 20th century have been the wooden writing tablets discovered at Vindolanda.

We often think that the best information from the Roman world comes from Egypt, where the dryness preserves papyri. However in Britain, the reverse conditions occur, and at Vindolanda, it is the dampness that has preserved wooden writing tablets that throw marvellous new light on the intimate lives of ordinary people living in Roman Britain.

The Roman fort of Vindolanda lies in a sheltered valley, two miles behind Hadrian’s Wall. Here a most remarkable discovery has been made – wooden tablets with writing on them, preserved in a waterlogged ditch.

These tablets were used, not for grand writings, but for memoranda and accounts and were thrown out onto a bonfire when the fort was evacuated in AD 105, and the troops were moved to the Danube frontier. The tablets provide the best insight into life in the Roman army found anywhere in the world. There is a list of how many troops were present, the commanding officer’s cook’s diary, listing who he had to dinner and what they ate, and even a birthday greeting, with the commanders’ wife inviting the wife of another commander to her birthday party.

The approach to Vindolanda


This is the approach which the modern visitor sees when approaching the fort of Vindolanda. The fort itself is in the middle distance, where the excavations of the Headquarters building are visible at the centre of a grassy field.
Outside the fort however was a civilian settlement, formed by the buildings seen in the foreground. The exposed fort wall can be seen running from the bush in the centre, to the left. The writing tablets were found off to the right

Plan of VindolandaImage

There were at least two forts at Vindolanda. The later fort, built of stone is marked in solid black. The fort itself is the rectangular playing card shape to the right. To the left is the civilian settlement, or ‘vicus’ set along the road leading out of the fort at an angle.

Underlying the stone fort however was an earlier fort, built of timber, and set at a different angle, marked by a shadow outline.

The writing tablets were found bottom centre – outside the later stone fort, but along the main road inside the earlier fort.

A wooden writing tablet


The writing was made in ink on small slivers of wood. Here we see a 4-page letter, written in Roman cursive script that is very difficult to read, unless one is very experienced in it. The content however is very modern:

Octavius to Candidus: “I need money. I have bought 5,000 bushels of grain, and unless you send me some money, I shall lose my deposit and be embarrassed. The hides which you write about are still at Catterick. I would have already collected them apart from the fact that the roads are so bad that I did not care to injure the animals”. (This is the first contemporary reference to a Roman road, and it complains how bad it is!)

The old house is now a museum, and in the garden several Roman buildings have been reconstructed. Here we see a Roman temple with ‘nymphs’ making offerings to the water gods.
The excavations are carried out by Robin Birley, whose father, Professor Eric Birley, once owned the site, and became the foremost authority on Hadrian’s Wall.

This is based on a fuller accounts in Current Archaeology 116, 128. 132 and 153

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