Vindolanda tablets were, at the time of their discovery, the
oldest surviving handwritten documents in Britain (they have now been
antedated by the Bloomberg tablets). They are a rich source of
information about life on the northern frontier of Roman
Britain. Written on fragments of thin, post-card sized wooden
leaf-tablets with carbon-based ink, the tablets date to the 1st and
2nd centuries AD (roughly contemporary with Hadrian's Wall). Although
similar records on papyrus were known from elsewhere in the Roman
Empire, wooden tablets with ink text had not been recovered until
1973, when archaeologist Robin Birley, his attention being drawn by
student excavator Keith Liddell, discovered some at the site of
Vindolanda, a Roman fort in northern England.
The documents record official military matters as well as personal
messages to and from members of the garrison of Vindolanda, their
families, and their slaves. Highlights of the tablets include an
invitation to a birthday party held in about 100 AD, which is perhaps
the oldest surviving document written in
Latin by a woman.
The excavated tablets are nearly all held at the British Museum, but
arrangements have been made for some to be displayed at Vindolanda.
The texts of 752 tablets had been transcribed, translated and
published as of 2010. Tablets continue to be found at
1.2 Selected highlights
2 Comparison to other sites
4 Online catalogue
5 Exhibition and impact
7 See also
10 External links
The wood tablets found at
Vindolanda were the first known surviving
examples of the use of ink letters in the Roman period. The use of ink
tablets was documented in contemporary records and
Herodian in the
third century AD wrote "a writing-tablet of the kind that were made
from lime-wood, cut into thin sheets and folded face-to-face by being
Vindolanda tablets are made from birch, alder and oak that grew
locally, in contrast to stylus tablets, another type of writing tablet
used in Roman Britain, which were imported and made from non-native
wood. The tablets are 0.25–3 mm thick with a typical size being
20 cm × 8 cm (7.9 in × 3.1 in) (the
size of a modern postcard). They were scored down the middle and
folded to form diptychs with ink writing on the inner faces, the ink
being carbon, gum arabic and water. Nearly 500 tablets were excavated
in the 1970s and 1980s.
First discovered in March 1973, the tablets were initially thought to
be wood shavings until one of the excavators found two stuck together
and peeled them apart to discover writing on the inside. They were
taken to the epigraphist Richard Wright, but rapid oxygenation of the
wood meant that they were black and unreadable by the time he was able
to view them. They were sent to Alison Rutherford at Newcastle
University Medical School for multi-spectrum photography, which led to
infra-red photographs showing the scripts for researchers for the
first time. The results were initially disappointing as the scripts
were undecipherable. However,
Alan Bowman at Manchester University and
David Thomas at Durham University analysed the previously unknown form
of cursive script and were able to produce transcriptions.
Vindolanda fort was garrisoned before the construction of Hadrian's
Wall and most of the tablets are slightly older than the Wall, which
was begun in 122 AD. The original director of excavations Robin
Birley identified five periods of occupation and expansion:
c. AD 85–92, first fort constructed.
c. AD 92–97, fort enlargement.
c. AD 97–103, further fort enlargements.
c. AD 104–120, hiatus and re-occupation.
c. AD 120–130, the period when
Hadrian's Wall was constructed
The tablets were produced in periods 2 and 3
(c. AD 92–103), with the majority written before
AD 102. They were used for official notes about the
Vindolanda camp business and personal affairs of the officers and
households. The largest group is correspondence of Flavius Cerialis,
prefect of the ninth cohort of Batavians and that of his wife,
Sulpicia Lepidina. Some correspondence may relate to civilian traders
and contractors; for example Octavian, the writer of Tablet 343, is an
entrepreneur dealing in wheat, hides and sinews, but this does not
prove him to be a civilian.
Claudia Severa to Sulpicia Lepidina, ref Tab. Vindol.
The best-known document is perhaps Tablet 291, written around
AD 100 by Claudia Severa, the wife of the commander of a
nearby fort, to Sulpicia Lepidina, inviting her to a birthday party.
The invitation is one of the earliest known examples of writing in
Latin by a woman. There are two handwriting styles in the tablet,
with the majority of the text written in a professional hand (thought
to be the household scribe) and with closing greetings personally
Claudia Severa herself (on the lower right hand side of the
The tablets are written in
Roman cursive script and throw light on the
extent of literacy in Roman Britain. One of the tablets confirms that
Roman soldiers wore underpants (subligaria), and also
testifies to a high degree of literacy in the Roman army.
There are only scant references to the indigenous Celtic Britons.
Until the discovery of the tablets, historians could only speculate on
whether the Romans had a nickname for the Britons. Brittunculi
(diminutive of Britto; hence 'little Britons'), found on one of the
Vindolanda tablets, is now known to be a derogatory, or patronising,
term used by the Roman garrisons that were based in Northern Britain
to describe the locals.
Illustration of Old
Roman cursive script
The tablets are written in forms of
Roman cursive script, considered
to be the forerunner of joined-up writing, which varies in style by
author. With few exceptions, they have been classified as Old
The writing from
Vindolanda appears as if it were written in a
different alphabet to the
Latin capitals used for inscriptions from
other periods. The script is derived from the capital writing of the
late first century BC and the first century AD. The text rarely shows
the unusual or distorted letter-forms or the extravagant ligatures to
be found in Greek papyri of the same period. Additional challenges
for transcription are the use of abbreviations such as "h" for homines
(men) or "cos" for consularis (consular), and the arbitrary division
of words at the end of lines for space reasons such as epistulas
(letters) being split between the "e" and the rest of the word.
The ink is often badly faded or survives as little more than a blur,
so that in some instances transcription is not possible. In most cases
the infra-red photographs provide a far more legible version of what
was written than the original tablets. However, the photographs
contain marks which appear similar to writing, but which certainly are
not letters; additionally, they contain a great many lines, dots and
other dark marks which may or may not be writing. Consequently, the
published transcriptions have often had to be interpreted subjectively
in deciding which marks should be regarded as writing.
Vindolanda tablets contain various letters of correspondence. For
instance, the cavalry decurion Masculus wrote a letter to prefect
Flavius Cerialis inquiring about the exact instructions for his men
for the following day, including a polite request for more beer to be
sent to the garrison (which had entirely consumed its previous stock
of beer). The documents also provide information about various
roles performed by the men at the fort, such as a keeper of the
bath-house, shoe-makers, construction workers, medical doctors,
maintainers of wagons and kilns, and those put on plastering duty.
Comparison to other sites
Wooden tablets have been found at twenty Roman settlements in
Britain. However, most of these sites did not yield the type of
tablet found at Vindolanda, but rather "stylus tablets", marked with
pointed metal styli. A significant number of ink tablets have been
identified at Carlisle (also on Hadrian's Wall)
The fact that letters were sent to and from places on Hadrian's Wall
and further afield (Catterick, York, and London) raises the
question of why more letters have been found at
Vindolanda than other
sites, but it is not possible to give a definitive answer. The
anaerobic conditions found at
Vindolanda are not unique and identical
deposits have been found in parts of London. One possibility,
given the fragile condition of the tablets found at Vindolanda, is
that archaeologists excavating other Roman sites have overlooked
evidence of writing in ink.
The tablets were photographed using infra-red sensitive cameras in
1973 by Susan M. Blackshaw in the
British Museum and more
comprehensively in 1990 at
Vindolanda by Alison Rutherford. The
tablets were scanned again using improved techniques in 2000–2001
with a Kodak Wratten 87C infra-red filter. The photographs are taken
in infra-red to enhance the faded ink against the wood of the tablets,
or between ink and dirt, to make the writing more visible.
In 2002 the tablet images were used as part of a research programme to
extend the use of the GRAVA iterative computer vision system to
aid the transcription of the
Vindolanda tablets through a series of
processes modelled on the best practice of papyrologists and to
provide the images in an
XML marked up format identifying the likely
placement of characters and words with their transcription.
In 2010 there was a collaboration between Centre for the Study of
Ancient Documents at University of Oxford, the
British Museum and the
Archaeological Computing Research Group at University of Southampton
Polynomial texture mapping for detailed recording and edge
The images, at a resolution suitable for web page display, and text of
the tablets from Tab.Vindol. II  were published on-line.[n 1]
Tablets from both Tab.Vindol. II  and Tab.Vindol. III  were
published in a new online catalogue in 2010.[n 2]
Exhibition and impact
Tablets on display at the British Museum
The tablets are held at the British Museum, where a selection of them
is on display in its
Roman Britain gallery (Room 49). The tablets
featured in the list of British archaeological finds selected by
experts at the
British Museum for the 2003
BBC Television documentary
Our Top Ten Treasures. Viewers were invited to vote for their
favourite, and the tablets came top of the poll.
Vindolanda Museum, run by the
Vindolanda Trust, has funding so
that a selection of tablets on loan from the
British Museum can be
displayed at the site where they were found. The Vindolanda
Museum put nine of the tablets on display in 2011. This loan of items
to a regional museum is in line with British Museum's current policy
of encouraging loans both internationally and nationally (as part of
its Partnership UK scheme).
Vindolanda Tablets Online. The digitization and on-line database
project was a collaboration between the Centre for the Study of
Ancient Documents and the Academic Computing Development Team at the
University of Oxford
University of Oxford with the support of the Andrew W. Mellon
Foundation and the Arts and Humanities Research Board. The project
directors were Alan Bowman, Charles Crowther and John Pearce. See
Vindolanda Tablets Online II. The
Vindolanda Tablets were
EpiDoc TEI (Text Encoding Initiative) for Centre for the
Study of Ancient Documents at the
University of Oxford
University of Oxford as a part of
the eSAD (e-Science and Ancient Documents) project. See 
Bath curse tablets
^ a b "Our Top Ten British Treasures: The
Vindolanda tablets". British
Museum. 24 January 2011. Retrieved 8 February 2011.
^ Philip Howard (10 April 1974). "Lime-wood records of Agricola's
soldiers". The Times. p. 20. But the most significant discovery
was a room littered with writing tablets. Of these eight or nine were
the conventional stylus tablets, once covered with wax which was
inscribed with a stylus. The rest are unique: very thin slivers of
lime wood with writing on them in a carbon-based ink that can be
deciphered by infrared photography. They are the first literary
evidence from this period of British history, the equivalent of the
records of the Roman Army found on papyrus in Egypt and Syria.
^ Bowman 2003, p. 12.
^ a b Susan M. Blackshaw (Nov 1974), "The Conservation of the Wooden
Vindolanda Roman Fort, Northumberland", Studies
in Conservation, International Institute for Conservation of Historic
and Artistic Works, 19, No. 4: 244–246, JSTOR 1505731
^ Bowman, A.K.; Thomas, J.D.; Tomlin, R.S.O. (2010), "The Vindolanda
Writing-Tablets (Tabulae Vindolandenses IV, Part 1)", Britannia,
Society for the Promotion of Roman Studies, 41: 187–224,
^ Kennedy, Maev. "New Cache of Roman letters discovered". Retrieved
^ a b Bowman 1994a, pp. 15–16
Vindolanda tablets online; Writing tablets – forms and
technology". Centre for the Study of Ancient Documents. Retrieved 2
^ Birley 2005, pp. 57–58
^ Bowman 1994a, p. 13
^ a b Franklin, Simon (2002), Writing, society and culture in early
Rus, c. 950–1300, Cambridge University Press, pp. 42–45,
^ a b Birley 2005, p. 85
^ "Tab. Vindol. II 291; Wood writing tablet with a party invitation
written in ink, in two hands, from
Claudia Severa to Lepidina".
British Museum. 24 January 2011. Retrieved 8 February 2011.
Mount, Harry (21 July 2008). "Hadrian's soldiers writing home". The
Daily Telegraph (telegraph.co.uk). Retrieved 23 February 2011. The
real prize of the
Vindolanda tablets, though, are the earliest
surviving letters in a woman's hand written in this country. In one
Claudia Severa wrote to her sister, Sulpicia Lepidina, the
wife of a
Vindolanda bigwig – Flavius Cerialis, prefect of the Ninth
Cohort of Batavians: 'Oh how much I want you at my birthday party.
You'll make the day so much more fun. I do so hope you can make it.
Goodbye, sister, my dearest soul.'
Vindolanda Tablets Online". Tab. Vindol. II 291: Oxford University.
Retrieved 1 August 2011.
^ Bowman and David Thomas, Alan (1994). "Tablet 291 - Translation and
Vindolanda Tablets Online - based on Volume II of the
Vindolanda writing tablets, published by
Alan Bowman and David Thomas
in 1994. Online material from book published by British Museum
Vindolanda Tablets Online". Tab. Vindol. II 346: Oxford University.
Retrieved 1 April 2010. ... I have sent (?) you ... pairs of socks
from Sattua, two pairs of sandals and two pairs of underpants, two
pairs of sandals ... Greet ...ndes, Elpis, Iu..., ...enus, Tetricus
and all your messmates with whom I pray that you live in the greatest
^ Sebesta, Judith Lynn; Bonfante, Larissa (2001), The world of Roman
costume, Univ of Wisconsin Press, p. 233,
Vindolanda Tablets Online". Tab. Vindol. II 164: Oxford University.
Retrieved 7 February 2011. Especially noteworthy in the Vindolanda
text is the occurrence, for the first time, of the patronising
diminutive Brittunculi (line 5, contrast Brittones in line 1). This
remains the only published text from
Vindolanda which refers
explicitly to the native Britons collectively or individually.
^ Birley 2005, p. 64
^ a b c Bowman, Alan K.; Thomas, John David (1984), Vindolanda: the
Latin writing-tablets, A. Sutton, ISBN 978-0-86299-118-0
^ Birley 2005, p. 65
^ a b Mike Ibeji (16 November 2012). "Vindolanda." BBC History.
BBC.co.uk. Accessed 6 October 2016.
^ "A Progress Report", Website of A Corpus of Writing-Tablets from
Roman Britain, a research project of the Centre for the Study of
Ancient Documents, Oxford, initiated around 2000. Retrieved 25
Tullie House Museum and Art Gallery
Tullie House Museum and Art Gallery in Carlisle has a small display
^ Birley 2005, p. 108
^ Birley 2002, p. 29
^ Bowman, Alan K; Brady, Michael; Academy, British; Royal Society
(Great Britain) (2005), Images and artefacts of the ancient world,
British Academy occasional paper, 4., Oxford, pp. 7–14,
^ Ground Reflective Adaptive Vision Architecture, see
^ Terras, Melissa M.; Robertson, Paul (2006), Image to interpretation:
an intelligent system to aid historians in reading the Vindolanda
texts, Oxford University Press, pp. 123–170,
^ Earl, Graeme (et al.) (2010). "Archaeological applications of
polynomial texture mapping: analysis, conservation and
representation". Journal of Archaeological Science. Elsevier. 37:
1–11. doi:10.1016/j.jas.2010.03.009. Retrieved 3 June 2013.
^ a b Bowman 1994b.
^ Bowman 2003.
^ Knowles, Bija (10 June 2009). "Tablets to Return to
Spring 2011 Thanks to £4 Million Heritage Lottery Funding". Heritage
Key. Retrieved 8 February 2011.
^ Henderson, Tony (29 September 2009). "Cash Boost Paves Way For
Vindolanda Letters To Return Home". The Journal (Newcastle).
p. 9. It is more than 20 years since any of the Vindolanda
tablets have been on show at the fort near Bardon Mill. But that is
set to change after an award of £4m today from the Heritage Lottery
Fund. That means a £6.5m project to upgrade both
Vindolanda and its
twin Roman Army Museum seven miles away at Carvoran will now go
ahead... It is hoped that from spring 2011 the first batch of letters
will return from the
British Museum on a three to five-year loan,
which can then be refreshed. "To have the letters back on public
display would be wonderful and we are very excited," said Patricia
Birley, director of the
Vindolanda Trust. "Negotiations with the
British Museum have been excellent and they are fully supportive of
our efforts to get tablets back to Vindolanda."
^ "Partnership UK". British Museum. 21 February 2011. Retrieved 2
Birley, Anthony (2002). Garrison Life at Vindolanda. Stroud.
Birley, Robin (2005). Vindolanda: extraordinary records of daily life
on the northern frontier. Roman Army Museum Publications.
Bowman, Alan K; Thomas, J David (1974). The
tablets. Northern history booklet, no. 47. Graham.
Bowman, Alan K; Thomas, J David (1983). Vindolanda: The
Tablets. Society for the Promotion of Roman Studies.
Bowman, Alan K (1994a). Life and letters on the Roman frontier :
Vindolanda and its people.
British Museum Press.
Bowman, Alan K; Thomas, J David (1994b). The Vindolanda
writing-tablets : (Tabulae Vindolandenses II). British Museum
Press. ISBN 978-0-7141-2300-4.
Bowman, Alan K; Thomas, J David (2003). The
(Tabulae Vindolandenses III).
British Museum Press.
Bowman, Alan K; Thomas, J David; Tomlin, R. S. O. (2010). The
Vindolanda Writing- Tablets (Tabulae Vindolandenses IV, Part 1).
Britannia. 41. pp. 187–224.
Wikimedia Commons has media related to
Item record at the British Museum, number P&EE 1989 6-2 74.
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CSAD, University of Oxford
Vindolanda Tablets Online II, updated catalogue of
by CSAD, University of Oxford
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