The Vindolanda tablets

Tablet with letter

Length: 18.200 cm

P&EE 1989 6-2 74

Vindolanda was one of the main military posts on the northern frontier of Britain before the building of Hadrian's Wall. Exacavations there in 1973 uncovered writing tablets which had been preserved in waterlogged conditions in rubbish deposits in and around the commanding officer's residence. These, and hundreds of other fragments which have come to light in subsequent excavations, are the oldest surviving handwritten documents in Britain.

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. The content is fascinating, giving us a remarkable insight into the working and private lives of the Roman garrison. They also display a great variety of individual handwriting, which adds to our knowledge of Roman cursive writing around AD 100.

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, written on with carbon ink and quill-type pens. Even after specialised conservation the exacavated tablets are fragile and require a carefully controlled environment.

Illustration: a business letter from Octavius, an entrepreneur supplying goods on a considerable scale to the Roman army

On display: Room 49: Roman Britain