Paying the bills
This is a letter from Severus to Candidus, about a payment for the Saturnalia festival held in December. Severus was a junior officer and Candidus was a slave. The Saturnalia festival was important to slaves - it was the one day of the year when they were allowed to change places with their owners.
Easy to reed?
Each tablet was very thin and about the size of a postcard. The writing was done with black ink and a pen made from a reed. The tablets were then folded to protect the writing and the address was written on the outside. If the letter was long, holes were punched in the corners of several tablets and they were tied together.
Digging in the dirt
When the tablets were found they were buried in very wet soil, so the wood was soggy and fragile. The archaeologists who dug them up had to be careful as they lifted the tablets out of the ground. Most of the tablets in the Museum are cracked and damaged after nearly 2000 years in the ground.
Burn after reading
When the Romans had finished with the tablets, they threw them on a bonfire. You can see burn marks on some of them! Sometimes only a few pieces from a tablet are found. The damage and the gaps can make it very difficult to work out what the writing says.
This tablet is a birthday invitation from Claudia Severa to Sulpicia Lepidina, for a party on 11 September. A scribe (official writer) wrote it, but at the bottom Claudia Severa has added a message in her own handwriting which says ‘I shall expect you sister. Farewell, sister my dearest soul, as I hope to prosper, and hail.’
An innocent man?
This letter was sent to the Roman governor by a man who had been beaten by a soldier. He is saying that the beating was unfair and that he is innocent of the crimes he was beaten for. Other documents of the time show that the Roman army sometimes punished people who were not guilty, so the man may be telling the truth – but nobody will ever know.
In the gallery
The tablets are very fragile and need to be treated carefully. They are kept in a special case in the Museum. Wood can swell up in the heat and shrink in the cold, so the temperature in the case is set to make sure this doesn’t happen. To keep the ink from fading, the lighting in the case is low.