The 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
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
* 1 Description
* 1.1 Chronology * 1.2 Selected highlights * 1.3 Transcription * 1.4 Contents
* 2 Comparison to other sites * 3 Imaging * 4 Online catalogue * 5 Exhibition and impact * 6 Notes * 7 See also * 8 References * 9 Sources * 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 bent".
The 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.
Invitation from Claudia Severa to Sulpicia Lepidina, ref Tab. Vindol. II 291
The best-known document is perhaps Tablet 291, written around AD 100 from 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 added by Claudia Severa herself (on the lower right hand side of the tablet).
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 Roman Cursive.
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.
The 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
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
The images, at a resolution suitable for web page display, and text of the tablets from Tab.Vindol. II were published on-line. Tablets from both Tab.Vindol. II and Tab.Vindol. III were published in a new online catalogue in 2010.
EXHIBITION AND IMPACT
Tablets on display at the
The tablets are held at the British Museum, where a selection of them
is on display in its
Vindolanda Museum, run by the
Vindolanda Trust, has funding so
that a selection of tablets on loan from the
* ^ See 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 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 http://vindolanda.csad.ox.ac.uk/about.shtml * ^ See Vindolanda Tablets Online II. The Vindolanda Tablets were encoded with EpiDoc TEI ( Text Encoding Initiative ) for Centre for the Study of Ancient Documents at the University of Oxford as a part of the eSAD (e-Science and Ancient Documents ) project. See
* ^ 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 Writing-Tablets from 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, doi :10.1017/S0068113X10000176 * ^ Kennedy, Maev. "New Cache of Roman letters discovered". Retrieved 2017-07-12. * ^ A B Bowman 1994a , pp. 15–16 * ^ " Vindolanda tablets online; Writing tablets – forms and technology". Centre for the Study of Ancient Documents. Retrieved 2 March 2011. * ^ 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, ISBN 978-0-521-81381-5 * ^ 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
* ^ Bowman and David Thomas, Alan (1994). "Tablet 291 -
Translation and Notes".
Vindolanda Tablets Online - based on Volume II
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 good fortune.
* ^ Sebesta, Judith Lynn; Bonfante, Larissa (2001), The world of
Univ of Wisconsin Press , p. 233, ISBN
* ^ "
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:
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 in Carlisle has a small
display of tablets.
* ^ 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, ISBN
* ^ 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, ISBN
* ^ Earl, Graeme (et al.) (2010). "Archaeological applications of
polynomial texture mapping: analysis, conservation and
representation". Journal of Archaeological Science.
* Birley, Anthony (2002). Garrison Life at Vindolanda. Stroud. ISBN 978-0-7524-1950-3 . * Birley, Robin (2005). Vindolanda: extraordinary records of daily life on the northern frontier. Roman Army Museum Publications. ISBN 978-1-873136-97-3 . * Bowman, Alan K; Thomas, J David (1974). The Vindolanda writing tablets. Northern history booklet, no. 47. Graham. ISBN 978-0-85983-096-6 . * Bowman, Alan K; Thomas, J David (1983). Vindolanda: The Latin Writing Tablets. Society for the Promotion of Roman Studies. ISBN 978-0-90776-402-1 . * Bo