When I was recently walking Hadrians Wall, there were countless Roman sites to visit either on or just off the wall. Having visited many all ready, the one I most wanted to visit was Vindolanda. You can see my blog post on Vindolanda here. Out of everything in Vindolanda, the objects I most wanted to see were the special treasures inside the museum there.
The most amazing treasures are not gold coins, precious stones or even well-preserved weapons but instead is an unequalled collection of writing tablets. These tablets record daily life such as letters from soldiers asking for socks and underwear, a birthday party invitation to the forts commander’s wife, requests for payment, lists of goods supplied and troop deployments. The Vindolanda writing tablets were voted Britain’s ‘Top Treasure’.
They are a truly unique and remarkable record of everyday life in the Roman Empire enabling visitors to connect with the real people to whom Vindolanda was home 2000 years ago!
The Vindolanda tablets were, at the time of their discovery, the oldest surviving handwritten documents in Britain (they have now been antedated by the Bloomberg tablets). They are a rich source of information about life on the northern frontier of Roman Britain. Written on fragments of thin, post-card sized wooden leaf-tablets with carbon-based ink, the tablets date to the 1st and 2nd centuries AD (roughly contemporary with Hadrian’s Wall). Although similar records on papyrus were known from elsewhere in the Roman Empire, wooden tablets with ink text had not been recovered until 1973, when archaeologist Robin Birley, his attention being drawn by student excavator Keith Liddell, discovered some at the site of Vindolanda, a Roman fort in northern England. I think Keith has a great surname, don’t you 🙂
The documents record official military matters as well as personal messages to and from members of the garrison of Vindolanda, their families, and their slaves. Highlights of the tablets include an invitation to a birthday party held in about 100 AD, which is perhaps the oldest surviving document written in Latin by a woman.
The excavated tablets are nearly all held at the British Museum, but arrangements have been made for some to be displayed at Vindolanda. The texts of 752 tablets had been transcribed, translated and published as of 2010. Tablets continue to be found at Vindolanda which you can visit with myself or a colleague at Ye Olde England Tours
The best-known document is perhaps Tablet 291, written around AD 100 by Claudia Severa, the wife of the commander of a nearby fort, to Sulpicia Lepidina, inviting her to a birthday party. The invitation is one of the earliest known examples of writing in Latin by a woman. There are two handwriting styles in the tablet, with the majority of the text written in a professional hand (thought to be the household scribe) and with closing greetings personally added by Claudia Severa herself (on the lower right hand side of the tablet). It is thought it possible that this is the only known surviving writing by a lady in the whole Roman Empire.
The tablets are written in Roman cursive script and throw light on the extent of literacy in Roman Britain. One of the tablets confirms that Roman soldiers wore underpants (subligaria), and also testifies to a high degree of literacy in the Roman army.
There are only scant references to the indigenous Celtic Britons. Until the discovery of the tablets, historians could only speculate on whether the Romans had a nickname for the Britons. Brittunculi (diminutive of Britto; hence ‘little Britons’), found on one of the Vindolanda tablets, is now known to be a derogatory, or patronising, term used by the Roman garrisons that were based in Northern Britain to describe the locals.
If you can’t get all the way to Vindolanda then you can see many of these tablets in the British Museum in Bloomsbury, London.
Of course there are many other Roman texts that have been found in Britain such as the famous Roman Curse tablets you can see in Bath but most of these have been scribed using some sort of metal implement.
If you are visiting Britain you can visit several Roman sites with Ye Olde England Tours. Not just the world famous Roman Baths but also the Roman city of St. Albans which is just outside London and our new Roman London walk which visits the Temple of Mithras, the London Coloseum and many other places.