Vindolanda Writing Tablets

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!

Just some of the many Roman writing tablets found at Vindolanda.

Just some of the many Roman writing tablets found at Vindolanda.

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.

Invitation from Claudia Severa to Sulpicia Lepidina, ref Tab. Vindol. II 291

Invitation from Claudia Severa to Sulpicia Lepidina, ref Tab. Vindol. II 291

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.

Old Roman Cursive

An attempt to mimic the Old Roman Cursive, and reads: Hoc gracili currenteque vix hodie patefactas Romani tabulas ornarunt calamo. This is a Latin elegiac couplet composed by myself, which might be translated as: “With this slender and running pen the Romans decorated writing tablets, which today scarcely have been brought to light.” The chief merit of this verse is that all letters of the Latin alphabet are used (except K, Y and Z)

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.

The old Bath Abbey from the ancient Roman Baths

About Stephen Liddell

I am a writer and traveller with a penchant for history and getting off the beaten track. With several books to my name including several #1 sellers. I also write environmental, travel and history articles for magazines as well as freelance work. I run my private tours company with one tour stated by the leading travel website as being with the #1 authentic London Experience. Recently I've appeared on BBC Radio and Bloomberg TV and am waiting on the filming of a ghost story on British TV. I run my own private UK tours company (Ye Olde England Tours) with small, private and totally customisable guided tours run by myself!
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10 Responses to Vindolanda Writing Tablets

  1. Contractions of Fate says:

    That’s where the real history is, the every day activity of normal people. Things like bills for banquets can show how much one noble was trying to impress another and so on, and letters can help form an idea of how people used to think.

    If you like ancient Near East stuff, like Sumeria, Assyria and so on, Digital Hammurabi is a really good, quite new YT channel run by a husband and wife team. They’ve also appeared on the non-Squitur Show and Godless Iowan.

    There’s an amazing amount of stuff available from clay tablets up to 5000 years old.

    Keith Liddell? No relation?


    Liked by 1 person

    • Yes I agree, it is the personal aspect that makes the letters so interesting and to see what people were doing then and how it wasn’t very much different to what people do today. Thank-you I will definitely check out their YT channel, that is all my favourite stuff.

      I don’t think Keith is a close relation but we must be related someway back as the family name originates in that area. I was born only 30 miles away so I’m sure we must be connected. You might like one of my several posts on my family tree and DNA.


      • Contractions of Fate says:

        Oh excellent thanks for that. Fascinating stuff.

        If you ever look at The Non-Sequitur show, beware of the Flat Earthers. They like to do what they call “Dumpster Fires” with Dunning-Kruger Creationists. But there’s a lot of good stuff as well. I’d recommend Aron Ra vs Kent Hovind on evolution, Elephants and Pine Trees, and the after show with G Man on Steve MsRae’s channel if you fancy a laugh.

        But one day they had Dr Joshua Bowen on and encouraged him to form a channel of his own, hence Digital Hammurabi. One of my favourites is when they were on Non-Seq and debunked Sitchin and Ancient Aliens, and shattered all of poor Kyle’s remaining few delusions!


        Liked by 1 person

  2. How extraordinary that the sgnature on a birthday party invitation should be the only mark left of a Roman woman in her own hand! Great post

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Francis says:

    Never knew about these tablets
    Thanks for lettong me know. Gives a great life insight on roman life north of rome.

    Liked by 1 person

    • It’s incredible how some of the best insights come in the most unexpected places and also how much a simple letter can mean so much more than all manner of collection of weapons and more conventional artefacts.


  4. Genesis our Evolution says:

    Reblogged this on Genesis our Evolution.

    Liked by 1 person

  5. Pingback: The oldest living English language | Stephen Liddell

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