The Vindolanda tablets (also known as Vindolanda Letters) are thin pieces of wood about the size of a modern postcard, which were used as writing paper for the Roman soldiers garrisoned at the fort of Vindolanda between AD 85 and 130. Such tablets have been found at other Roman sites, including nearby Carlisle, but not in as much abundance. In Latin texts, such as those of Pliny the Elder, these kind of tablets are referred to as leaf tablets or sectiles or laminae--Pliny used them to keep notes for his Natural History written in the first century AD.
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The tablets are thin slivers (.5 cm to 3 mm thick) of imported spruce or larch, which for the most part measure about 10 x 15 cm (~4x6 inches). The surface of the wood was smoothed and treated so it could be used for writing. Often the tablets were scored in the center so that they could be folded and tied together for security purposes--to keep couriers from reading the contents. Longer documents were created by tying several leaves together.
Writing the Vindolanda Letters
The writers of the Vindolanda documents include soldiers, officers and their wives and families who were garrisoned at Vindolanda, as well as merchants and slaves and correspondents at many different cities and forts throughout the vast Roman empire, including Rome, Antioch, Athens, Carlisle and London.
The writers wrote exclusively in Latin on the tablets, although the texts mostly lack punctuation or proper spelling; there is even some Latin shorthand which has yet to be deciphered. Some of the texts are rough drafts of letters that were later sent; others are mail received by the soldiers from their families and friends elsewhere. Some of the tablets have doodles and drawings on them.
The tablets were written on with pen and ink--over 200 pens have been recovered at Vindolanda. The most common pen nib was made of a good quality iron by a blacksmith, who sometimes embellished them with chevrons or bronze leaf or inlay, depending on the customer. The nib was typically attached to a wood holder that held a well of ink made of a mixture of carbon and gum arabic.
What did the Romans Write?
Topics covered on the tablets include letters to friends and families ("a friend sent me 50 oysters from Cordonovi, I'm sending you half" and "So that you may know that I am in good health... you most irreligious fellow who hasn't even sent me a single letter"); applications for leave ("I ask you, Lord Cerialis, that you hold me worthy for you to grant me leave"); official correspondence; "strength reports" listing the number of men present, absent or ill; inventories; supply orders; travel expense account details ("2 wagon axles, 3.5 denarii; wine-lees, 0.25 denarii"); and recipes.
One plaintive plea to the Roman emperor Hadrian himself reads: "As befits an honest man I implore Your Majesty not to allow me, an innocent man, to have been beaten with rods..." Chances are this was never sent. Added to this are quotations from famous pieces: a quote from Virgil's Aeneid is written in what some, but not all scholars interpret as a child's hand.
Finding the Tablets
The recovery of over 1300 tablets at Vindolanda (to date; tablets are still being found in the ongoing excavations run by the Vindolanda Trust) is the result of serendipity: a combination of the way the fort was constructed and the geographic location of the fort.
Vindolanda was built at the place where two streams conjoin to create the Chinley Burn, which ends up in the South Tyne river. As such, the fort's occupants struggled with wet conditions for most of the four centuries or so that the Romans lived here. Because of that, the floors of the fort were carpeted with a thickish (5-30 cm) combination of mosses, bracken and straw. Into this thick, smelly carpet were lost a number of items, including discarded shoes, textile fragments, animal bone, metal fragments and pieces of leather: and a large number of Vindolanda tablets.
In addition, many tablets were discovered in filled-in ditches, and preserved by the wet, mucky, anaerobic conditions of the environment.
Reading the Tablets
The ink on many of the tablets is not visible, or not readily visible with the naked eye. Infrared photography has been used successfully to capture images of the written word.
More interestingly, the fragments of information from the tablets have been combined with other data known about Roman garrisons. For example, Tablet 183 lists an order for iron ore and objects including their prices, which Bray (2010) has used to learn about what the cost of iron was relative to other commodities, and from that identify the difficulty and utility of iron out on the edges of the far-flung Roman empire.
Images, texts and translations of some of the Vindolanda Tablets can be found at the Vindolanda Tablets Online. Many of the tablets themselves are at stored at the British Museum; and visiting the Vindolanda Trust website is well worth it as well. See page two for additional resources used for this article.