A couple of months ago a major epigraphic discovery was announced: a number of wooden writing tablets, dated to the 1st century AD, had been found in an excavation in London. This was a considerable archive, with 405 tablets of which 87 have been analysed and translated by Dr Roger Tomlin of Oxford. A picture of one is shown in Figure 1 below.
Figure 1. Wooden writing tablet from Roman London dated to 8th January 57 AD.
Why should we get excited about this find? Well, for one thing these objects allow us a rare chance to observe Roman handwriting. We have plenty of surviving Latin but the vast majority has come through one of two routes: either through being copied down over and over again since ancient times (which is why a lot of our earliest copies of Classical authors date from the medieval period) or through being written on a durable medium such as stone or pottery that has survived to be read today. Neither of these gives us access to what Latin looked like when it was written down by hand directly by an ancient Latin speaker him/herself.
One of the reasons why Roman handwriting is hard to find has to do with the materials that were usually written on. One place to look for handwriting is in graffiti, such as have been found on the walls of Pompeii – a favourite example of mine is shown as a drawing in Figure 2 (labyrinthus hic habitat Minotaurus written around a depiction of a labyrinth). But graffiti on walls are rare and you are much more likely to find a scrawled graffito on a sherd of pottery than on a wall, with Pompeii representing an unusual chance to observe mural graffiti.
Figure 2. Minotaur graffito from Pompeii.
If a Roman was going to write a note, or a letter, or a receipt or even a longer text like a piece of literature then the chances are that he/she would use a material that is very unlikely to survive to the modern day, such as papyrus or wood. These are materials that can only survive in very specific soil conditions. For example, pretty much the only way that wooden documents could survive is to be buried in boggy ground, as the moisture preserves them.
Vindolanda, a fort on Hadrian’s Wall, has provided perhaps the most famous set of handwritten Latin texts – the Vindolanda tablets. Some of these were small wooden writing tablets that once would have been coated in wax, in which a message would have been inscribed using a pointed stylus. Others were thinner wooden tablets on which a carbon-based ink was used to write the message. The slivers of wood that have survived often barely appear to have writing on them until you expose them to special infra-red imaging techniques, making a sort of shadow of the original text visible. This gives us access to the cursive style of handwriting that was used when writing a note – very different to Latin as we often see it in big block capitals on monuments. Figure 3 shows one of the Vindolanda tablets, which is thought to be a description of the Britons’ fighting techniques.
Figure 3. One of the Vindolanda tablets.
You can also find out a lot more about the Vindolanda tablets by visiting the website set up by the Centre for the Study of Ancient Documents in Oxford:
Given the scarcity of inscriptions of this type, the discovery of an archive of wooden writing documents in London is of huge importance. One of them is the earliest known piece of writing to be found in Britain, which mentions a debt, and is dated between 43 and 53 AD (i.e. in the first ten years following the Roman invasion): see Figure 4.
Figure 4. London tablet dated between 43 and 53 AD.
One tablet, only slightly later, records the exact date on which it was written, 8th January 57 AD (Figure 1 above). Another is the earliest attested use of the Roman name of London itself, Londinium: see Figure 5.
Figure 5. Tablet recording the Roman name of London, Londinium.
The Londinium tablet is perhaps a little easier to read than some of the others, as you can see in the drawing above – though you may also be able to make out most of the letters in the photo as well. Having access to handwritten documents of this sort opens up all sorts of further questions. Who was writing them? What did they do with them? How many people could read, and how did they learn? These are too many questions to tackle today, but the London archive has provided some very interesting evidence in respect to the last one…
One of the tablets is an abcedarium, a list of the letters of the alphabet written out in order: see Figure 6. You may remember from previous CREWS posts that I am very interested in abecedaria at the moment (e.g. the first CREWS post and this later one) – though what I have previously shown you has mainly concentrated on the Ugaritic, Phoenician and Greek alphabetic series (between about the 15th and 5th centuries BC, so hundreds of years before this Roman abecedarium). The CREWS project is not going to be looking in-depth at Latin writing, but later developments from the earlier alphabets are certainly a matter of great interest. The Roman adoption of the alphabet is a part of the story of how a particular writing system originated in the Near East and came down to us via several different ancient and medieval societies to become what it is today.
Figure 6. London tablet bearing an abecedarium.
One thing that this particular inscription tells us is that literacy was not necessarily something that could be taken for granted in Roman London. Whoever wrote this abecedarium (whether an adult or a child, a Roman or a native Briton) was probably using it as a learning or teaching aid, conveying the individual letters of the alphabet in order to be memorised. Note however that these are not the very cursive signs familiar from most of the inscriptions above. These are very straight and quite large letters, not so different in some ways from the block capitals familiar from monumental texts on stone. These seem to have provided the basic, normalised template for written letters – although it is easy to imagine how they could become more rounded and angled when writing faster by hand.
More information about the wooden tablets found in London has been published by Museum of London Archaeology (MOLA), who excavated them:
I hope you have enjoyed this foray into writing in Roman London. In the near future we will look at other topics, including the Venetic god of writing, the bottom two lines of the CREWS logo and, as promised, some ways in which you can get involved in the CREWS project. Watch this space.
~ Pippa Steele (Principal Investigator of the CREWS project)