Archaeologists have spotted a stockpile of Roman letters at Vindolanda, the fort below Hadrian’s Wall in the north of England. Experts can’t hide their excitement about the newly found 25 tablets and hope that the new letters will reveal previously unknown information about the characters that lived there as well as ancient Roman life at the site.
2,000-Year-Old Letters Discovered at Vindolanda
The Guardian recently reported that an exciting fresh find of 25 Roman letters has been discovered at the archaeological site of Vindolanda, where some of the most significant and prominent documents found in the UK from the Roman world were discovered in back in 1992.
As previously reported in an Ancient Origins article, Vindolanda was a small garrison, where only a few hundred Roman soldiers were stationed with their families. They took shelter inside the fort behind a series of a large ditches and ramparts. The war between the Roman forces and British tribes was long and cruel. Romans arrived in Britain for the first time around 55 or 54 BC, when Julius Caesar launched an invasion. The war between the invaders and British tribes ceased around 212 AD, and the fort went out of use. Vindolanda was abandoned and anything that people didn't want or couldn't take with them to the new settlements was left behind and remained there for nearly two millennia. New constructions built on top of the old created an oxygen free environment that preserved many of the precious artifacts. As a natural consequence, the newly found wooden tablets are well-preserved and still in a good condition.
The general area of the fort currently being excavated, where the letters were found. (vindolanda.com)
One Tablet Reveals Romans Loved their Beer
The tablets will be scanned with infrared light which will most likely make the faint marks in black ink clear enough to read, even though the cursive script is universally a cryptic crossword puzzle that will most likely baffle experts for several months before they manage to solve it. The good news, however, is that archaeologists have already managed to reveal the identity of one of the historical figures – already known from the original find at the site – from a tablet’s content. This person is Masclus, a Roman soldier who we learned in the previous find, was ordered by his commanding officer to write a letter, requesting more beer supplies to be sent to his outpost on the wall. Additionally, the letter also reveals that Masclus asks for a leave, or "commeatus" in Latin, probably with a painful hangover. It will be interesting to see what more we learn of Masclus and company from the new letters.
Some of the latest letter tablets, which were penned on thin strips of wood. (vindolanda.com)
In total, the hoard of documents from the site provides a previously unknown view of daily life in a Roman garrison. Other than beer requests, the letters include birthday invitations, while some of them reveal the derogatory terms Roman used to refer to the locals. More importantly, the cache of letters includes the oldest example of women's handwriting from Europe, in the correspondence between two high-ranking military commanders' wives. Dr Robin Birley, the second generation of his family to lead at the site, said as The Guardian reports, "Some of these new tablets are so well preserved that they can be read without the usual infrared photography and before going through the long conservation process. There is nothing more exciting than reading these personal messages from the distant past. This is the find I have been hoping for all my working life.”
Headquarters building at the center of Vindolanda Roman Fort (CC BY SA 2.0)
One Particular Letter Stands Out from the Rest
The majority of the new letters are written like those of the original find on thin slivers of birch, except one rare double-leaved oak tablet, where the two pieces of timber folded together, giving this way an exceptionally good preservation of ink on the wooden tablet which experts suggest that was used for more significant correspondence than the more common birch. “I was a lad of 17 when the first letters were found, and every season since then I have hoped, but never really expected, that more might turn up. My father has been rather poorly recently, but by the time I got home he had cracked open a bottle of champagne and the level had already fallen considerably,” an excited Dr. Birley, added as The Guardian reports.
The next step now is to put the wooden tablets through infrared photography and a meticulous preservation process so that more of the text can be deciphered.
Top image: One of the new tablets, which arenow undergoing painstaking conservation and infrared photography (vindolanda.com)
By Theodoros Karasavvas