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The Roman fort at Vindolanda

The oldest surviving handwritten documents in Britain come from the Roman fort of Vindolanda. This was one of the main military posts on the northern frontier of Britain before the building of Hadrian's Wall. The first writing-tablets were discovered in 1973 and hundreds more fragments have come to light in subsequent archaeological excavations. Waterlogged conditions preserved the tablets in rubbish deposits in and around the commanding officer's residence.

Even after specialised conservation the tablets are fragile and require a carefully controlled environment. Most of the tablets are official military documents relating to the auxiliary units stationed at the fort. However, others are private letters sent to or written by the serving soldiers. Apart from their fascinating content, which gives a remarkable insight into the working and private lives of the Roman garrison, the tablets are important for two other reasons. First, there is a great variety of individual handwriting, which greatly adds to our knowledge of Roman cursive writing around AD 100. Secondly, the tablets are not made of wood and wax, previously thought to be the most popular medium for writing in the Roman world apart from papyrus. Instead they are wafer thin slices of wood (mainly birch and alder), written on with carbon ink and quill-type pens.

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