Key project information
What were the Vindolanda tablets made of?
Among the most iconic objects to have survived from Roman Britain, this group of over 1,800 postcard-sized wooden tablets provide a fascinating insight into the daily lives of those living at the fort of Vindolanda, south of Hadrian's Wall. These tablets include examples of personal correspondence as well as military instructions. One of the tablets contains the earliest known example of handwriting in Latin by a woman from Britain.
Some of the tablets were written on using ink, while others had a wax surface on which the text was incised. Using specific scientific techniques, this project seeks to understand their manufacture including the species of wood used, how tablet surfaces were prepared for writing and the composition of the inks. The project will also assess the present condition of the tablets to ensure their long-term preservation for display and research.
About the project
Since the discovery of the Vindolanda tablets in 1973 during excavations of the Roman fort near Hadrian's Wall, research has focused on reading surviving traces of ink writing on many of the tablets. This work is ongoing, co-ordinated by the Vindolanda Trust in collaboration with a small team of palaeographers – experts in the study of old handwriting.
However, little research has been conducted on the production of the two types of Vindolanda tablets themselves:
- Ink tablets made of thin slivers of wood, rather like postcards, onto which cursive Latin was written in ink using a split nib.
- Stylus tablets using thicker pieces of wood with a recess for wax, into which writing was inscribed using a point, or stylus.
Very little is known about the processes involved in creating, preparing and using these tablets. Using modern scientific techniques, such as digital microscopy and multispectral imaging, this project seeks to understand how the tablets were crafted from wood, prepared and written on.
It will also reveal connections between the soldiers at Vindolanda and the wider empire. For example, it is possible that some of the woods or ingredients used to make inks came from distant parts of the empire. This project aligns with wider research activities being conducted at Vindolanda and will further enrich the Museum’s relationship with the Vindolanda Trust.
This project will develop new learning on how the Vindolanda tablets were produced, addressing a major gap in research to date. It aims to uncover:
- The preferred species of wood used to make the tablets.
- The properties that make the woods suitable for making tablets.
- The source of wood – native or from other parts of the Roman Empire.
- How the wood was crafted into tablets.
- The surface treatments, such as wax, used to prepare the tablets for writing.
- The selection, blending and variety of ingredients used to produce inks.
- How the tablets compare to other wooden items discovered at Vindolanda.
The project will also facilitate a conservation condition survey for the tablets to evaluate their current condition and inform best practice for their future study and display.
A core output of this project will be a journal article summarising the main results of the study. It will also provide the opportunity to refresh the display of the tablets in Room 49 (the Weston Gallery of Roman Britain) with the outcomes of this research.