A writing tablet made of wood and covered in lines of script in ink. The tablet is in fragments and laid out on cloth.

The Vindolanda tablets

A photograph of Dr Richard Hobbs in a grey shirt, standing in front of a bookshelf.

By Richard Hobbs, Senior Curator of Romano-British and late Roman Collections, British Museum

View Vindolanda tablets at the special exhibition Legion: life in the Roman army (1 February – 23 June 2024).

Some 1,700 tablets from Roman Britain tell us the intimate details of fort life at Vindolanda in the words of the people who lived there.

Join curator Richard Hobbs as he explains why these postcards from the past, whose survival is down to the British weather, are so important.

What are the Vindolanda tablets?

What are the Vindolanda tablets?

The Vindolanda tablets are a set of wooden writing tablets from the Roman fort of Vindolanda in present-day Northumberland. The tablets comprise thin slices of wood around the size of postcards, on which was written cursive Latin using black ink. Most of the tablets date to around AD 100, during the reign of the emperor Trajan (AD 98–117). There are a smaller number of stylus tablets, which are thicker pieces of wood with a central recess for wax – these were written on with a metal point, or 'stylus'. The writing on these only survives if the scribe pressed hard enough through the wax to leave an imprint on the wood, since the wax rarely survives.

Why are the tablets important?

Vindolanda has by far the largest number of ink writing tablets from anywhere in the Roman Empire. They provide us with an extraordinary insight into life in a Roman auxiliary fort (occupied by non-citizen troops) between about AD 90 and 120. The tablets are drafts of letters and accounts written at  – or letters and documents sent to – Vindolanda. The documents would have been kept at the fort's principia (headquarters). When the fort was remodelled or rebuilt, which happened on a number of occasions, caches of documents were cleared out and dumped. It appears several attempts were made to burn the tablets, but either the ground was too wet or rain dampened the flames before they could take hold. So we can be grateful that this part of the world is notoriously damp.

All of us, at some point, have written something down – even in this digital age. A postcard sent from a holiday, an invite to a birthday party or a shopping list. Just imagine if someone found what you had written in 2,000 years' time – would that not be extraordinary? The Vindolanda tablets are not quite 2,000 years old (but they're getting there) and the large number of people who wrote them would surely be amazed to learn that their words had been brought back to life so long after they themselves were dead and buried.

Birthday invitation Vindolanda tablet

Claudia Severa to her Lepidina greetings. On the third day before the Ides of September, sister, for the day of the celebration of my birthday, I give you a warm invitation to make sure that you come to us, to make the day more enjoyable for me by your arrival, if you are present. Give my greetings to your Cerialis. My Aelius and my little son send their greetings. I shall expect you sister. Farewell, sister my dearest soul, as I hope to prosper, and hail. To Sulpicia Lepedina, wife of Cerialis, from Severa.

Claudia Severa, resident at Vindolanda inviting her friend Sulpicia Lepidina to her birthday

What do the Vindolanda tablets say?

What do the Vindolanda tablets say?

Most of the tablets preserve only a few words, but some are much more complete. The 'strength report' tablet is probably the most important military document ever discovered in Britain. Dating to around AD 90, it tells us that the fort was occupied by 752 men of the First Cohort of Tungrians, who came from present-day Belgium. Somewhat surprisingly, only 265 men were considered fit for active service. Vindolanda also boasts around 30 unique 'military reports', which tell us who was 'present and correct' at particular times. Unique too are requests for leave, for example from a soldier called Messicus who requests leave at nearby Coria (Corbridge). One document describes the fighting habits of the locals, who are referred to disparagingly as 'wretched Britons' while, in a letter, a junior officer complains to his superior that 'My fellow soldiers have no beer – please order some to be sent'.

Aside from these military documents, the tablets provide extraordinary insights into the social lives of officers and their families. The most famous example is the so-called birthday invitation, written by a woman called Claudia Severa, the wife of a fort commander named Aelius Brocchus. In the letter Severa invites her friend Sulpicia Lepidina, the wife of Vindolanda's fort commander, Flavius Cerialis, to her birthday party. She signs the letter in her own hand, writing 'I shall expect you sister. Farewell, sister, my dearest soul, as I hope to prosper, and hail'. Dated to around AD 100, this is the earliest example of a woman's handwriting from anywhere in the Roman Empire.

Vindolanda June 2023

Aerial view of Vindolanda site under excavation, on a bright day amid green rolling hills
The fort and garrison settlement at Vindolanda, 2023. Reproduced by kind permission of the Vindolanda Trust.

What and where is Vindolanda?

What and where is Vindolanda?

Vindolanda, which in Latin means 'white fields', is a Roman fort in present-day Northumberland. It is just south of Hadrian's Wall, with the fort at Housesteads about two miles to the north. Today there is a museum run by the Vindolanda Trust at the site, where more tablets can be seen.

The fort at Vindolanda is in fact a series of forts, whose construction spans almost the entire Roman period in Britain, with the site only falling out of use when Britain was no longer part of the Roman Empire (in the early fifth century AD). The first fort, built in timber, was constructed in around AD 85. Vindolanda was part of a network of forts built on the Stanegate road, which ran from the Solway Firth in the west across to the valley of the River Tyne in the east. This fort network supported and protected military traffic along an important east-west corridor. It is estimated that in Britain in AD 100, there were around 30,000 auxiliary troops (drawn from subject populations) and about 15,000 legionary soldiers (Roman citizens). The auxiliary troops protected Britain's northern frontier, with the southern lowland part of Britain being largely civilian (inhabited by peoples from Britain and across the empire). At the time, the Romans had already conquered much of southern Britain and had also attempted – but failed – to conquer Scotland. The Stanegate was largely superseded by Hadrian's Wall, built around AD 122 slightly to the north, which itself was superseded by the Antonine Wall built some decades later (and subsequently abandoned). Despite these developments, Vindolanda continued to be occupied throughout the Roman period.

Robin Birley, former Director of Excavations at Vindolanda

A man in a patterned jumper, white shirt collar and spectacles works with his hands on an object

If I have to spend the rest of my life working in dirty, wet trenches, I doubt whether I shall ever again experience the shock and excitement I felt at my first glimpse of ink hieroglyphs on tiny scraps of wood.

Robin Birley, former Director of Excavations at Vindolanda

How and when were the tablets discovered?

How and when were the tablets discovered?

The tablets were first discovered in March 1973, so this year we celebrate 50 years since their discovery. Excavations at the fort and garrison settlement, next to the fort, had proved difficult due to the site becoming waterlogged. Robin Birley, the director of excavations, dug a drainage ditch just outside the south-west corner of the stone fort. About four metres down he came across the remains of the earliest timber forts, with wooden posts still in situ. Also found was a mass of organic material that included leather, textiles, straw mixed with bracken and a lot of wood. Among this were a couple of thin wood shavings, which turned out to be the writing tablets. Birley famously said of the discovery, 'If I have to spend the rest of my life working in dirty, wet trenches, I doubt whether I shall ever again experience the shock and excitement I felt at my first glimpse of ink hieroglyphs on tiny scraps of wood'. Since these initial discoveries, hundreds of tablets have been found across the site, most often in the deepest most waterlogged trenches dug.

Who was Robin Birley?

Robin Birley was director of the excavations at Vindolanda between about 1967 and 2015 – nearly 50 years – when he handed over the directorship of the excavations to his son Andrew. Robin passed away in 2018. 

The site at Vindolanda is unusual as it has been excavated by three generations of archaeologists from the same family, as Robin was preceded by his father Eric, who passed away in 1995. Eric and Robin were self-taught archaeologists with a passion for Roman history; Andrew studied archaeology at both degree and post-graduate level.

How many tablets are there?

There are more than 1,700 writing tablets from Vindolanda in the British Museum collection. More are discovered every year at the site, because excavations are ongoing. For instance, during the excavations that took place in 2023, around a dozen further tablets were discovered.

How did the tablets survive? How were they deciphered?

How did the tablets survive?

The wooden writing tablets from Vindolanda survived because many of the archaeological deposits are waterlogged, which creates anaerobic conditions.

This means that there is no oxygen to support the bacteria that on most archaeological sites will gradually destroy anything organic. Vast quantities of other organic materials have also been found at Vindolanda, including thousands of leather shoes, a wooden toilet seat and even a pair of leather boxing gloves!

How the tablets were made, the different species of woods used, and the composition of the inks, is currently the subject of a research project at the British Museum entitled 'Making History', which is being generously supported by Augmentum.

How were the tablets deciphered?

One of the challenges of deciphering the writing on the tablets is that the text is often hard to make out: scribes often write poorly (so the 'doctor's prescription' problem was as true then as it is now) and the texts do not have punctuation, so words and sentences are not easily distinguished. The readings are done by palaeographers – specialists in ancient writing systems – who normally work on Egyptian papyri, so are skilled in deciphering cursive Latin and ancient Greek.

How did the Vindolanda tablets come to be at the British Museum?

In 1981, the British Museum agreed to buy the Vindolanda tablets for the nation and continues to acquire new tablets. A number of tablets are on display in Rooms 49 and 70 with the rest in special storage. Another small group of tablets is on long-term loan to Vindolanda for display in their on-site museum.

Richard Hobbs, curator

A photo of Richard Hobbs in a grey check shirt in front of a bookshelf

I feel enormously privileged to be the curator responsible for these extraordinary objects and I feel a great responsibility to ensure that they will be available for the public for many decades to come. The job of the curator is to allow material culture, that is the millions of objects left behind by our human ancestors, to speak to us. In the case of the Vindolanda tablets, all we need to do is listen.

Richard Hobbs, Senior Curator of Romano-British and late Roman Collections, British Museum