Vindolanda tablets
The Vindolanda tablets are "the oldest surviving handwritten documents in Britain". They are also probably our best source of information about life on Hadrian's Wall
Hadrian's Wall
Hadrian's Wall was a defensive fortification in Roman Britain. Begun in AD 122, during the rule of emperor Hadrian, it was the first of two fortifications built across Great Britain, the second being the Antonine Wall, lesser known of the two because its physical remains are less evident today.The...

. 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
Papyrus is a thick paper-like material produced from the pith of the papyrus plant, Cyperus papyrus, a wetland sedge that was once abundant in the Nile Delta of Egypt....

 were known from elsewhere in the Roman Empire
Roman Empire
The Roman Empire was the post-Republican period of the ancient Roman civilization, characterised by an autocratic form of government and large territorial holdings in Europe and around the Mediterranean....

, wooden tablets with ink text had not been recovered until 1973, when archaeologist Robin Birley
Robin Birley (archaeologist)
Robin Edgar Birley was formerly the Director of Excavations at the Roman site of Vindolanda, and now heads the Vindolanda research committee. The son of Eric Birley , he worked as a Royal Marine and then a teacher before giving this up to run the Vindolanda Trust and excavate the site...

 discovered these artefacts at the site of a Roman fort
The Latin word castra, with its singular castrum, was used by the ancient Romans to mean buildings or plots of land reserved to or constructed for use as a military defensive position. The word appears in both Oscan and Umbrian as well as in Latin. It may have descended from Indo-European to Italic...

 in Vindolanda
Vindolanda was a Roman auxiliary fort just south of Hadrian's Wall in northern England. Located near the modern village of Bardon Mill, it guarded the Stanegate, the Roman road from the River Tyne to the Solway Firth...

, 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. Held at the British Museum
British Museum
The British Museum is a museum of human history and culture in London. Its collections, which number more than seven million objects, are amongst the largest and most comprehensive in the world and originate from all continents, illustrating and documenting the story of human culture from its...

, the texts of 752 tablets have been transcribed, translated and published as of 2010. Tablets continue to be found at Vindolanda.


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
Herodian or Herodianus of Syria was a minor Roman civil servant who wrote a colourful history in Greek titled History of the Empire from the Death of Marcus in eight books covering the years 180 to 238. His work is not entirely reliable although his relatively unbiased account of Elagabalus is...

 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 0.25–3mm thick with a typical size being 20x8cm (the size of a modern postcard). They were scored down the middle and folded to form diptych
A diptych di "two" + ptychē "fold") is any object with two flat plates attached at a hinge. Devices of this form were quite popular in the ancient world, wax tablets being coated with wax on inner faces, for recording notes and for measuring time and direction.In Late Antiquity, ivory diptychs with...

s with ink writing on the inner faces, the ink being carbon, gum arabic
Gum arabic
220px|thumb|right|Acacia gumGum arabic, also known as acacia gum, chaar gund, char goond, or meska, is a natural gum made of hardened sap taken from two species of the acacia tree; Acacia senegal and Acacia seyal...

 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
Alan Bowman
Alan Keir Bowman FBA is the Principal of Brasenose College, Oxford.Born in 1944 Bowman was educated at Manchester Grammar School, The Queen's College, Oxford and the University of Toronto...

 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
Robin Birley (archaeologist)
Robin Edgar Birley was formerly the Director of Excavations at the Roman site of Vindolanda, and now heads the Vindolanda research committee. The son of Eric Birley , he worked as a Royal Marine and then a teacher before giving this up to run the Vindolanda Trust and excavate the site...

 identified five periods of occupation and expansion:
  1. c. 85-92 AD, first fort constructed.
  2. c. 92-7 AD, fort enlargement.
  3. c. 97-103 AD, further fort enlargements.
  4. c. 104-120 AD, hiatus and re-occupation.
  5. c. 120-130 AD

The tablets were produced in periods 2 and 3 (c. AD 92–130), 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
Cohort (military unit)
A cohort was the basic tactical unit of a Roman legion following the reforms of Gaius Marius in 107 BC.-Legionary cohort:...

 of Batavians and that of his wife, Sulpicia Lepidina
Sulpicia Lepidina
Sulpicia Lepidina was the wife of Flavius Cerialis, prefect of the Ninth Cohort of Batavians, stationed at Vindolanda in Roman Britain about the turn of the 1st century AD....

. 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.

Selected highlights

The best-known document is perhaps Tablet 291, written around AD 100 from Claudia Severa
Claudia Severa
Claudia Severa was a literate Roman woman, the wife of Aelius Brocchus, commander of an unidentified fort near Vindolanda fort in northern England....

, 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
Roman cursive
Roman cursive is a form of handwriting used in ancient Rome and to some extent into the Middle Ages. It is customarily divided into old cursive, and new cursive.- Old 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
Roman army
The Roman army is the generic term for the terrestrial armed forces deployed by the kingdom of Rome , the Roman Republic , the Roman Empire and its successor, the Byzantine empire...


There are only scant references to the indigenous Britons
Britons (historical)
The Britons were the Celtic people culturally dominating Great Britain from the Iron Age through the Early Middle Ages. They spoke the Insular Celtic language known as British or Brythonic...

. 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 patronizing, term used by the Roman garrisons that were based in Northern Britain to describe the locals.


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 from 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, and 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 subjective in deciding which marks to treat as writing.

Comparison to other sites

The fact that letters were sent to and from places on Hadrian's Wall and further afield (Catterick
Catterick, North Yorkshire
Catterick , sometimes Catterick Village, to distinguish it from the nearby Catterick Garrison, is a village and civil parish in the Richmondshire district of North Yorkshire, England...

, York
Eboracum was a fort and city in Roman Britain. The settlement evolved into York, located in North Yorkshire, England.-Etymology:The first known recorded mention of Eboracum by name is dated circa 95-104 AD and is an address containing the Latin form of the settlement's name, "Eburaci", on a wooden...

, 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 and significant numbers of ink tablets have been identified at Carlisle
Luguvalium was a town in the Roman province of Britannia. Today it is known as Carlisle, located in the English county of Cumbria .-Pre-Roman:...

 (also on Hadrian's Wall). 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.

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 stylus is a writing utensil, or a small tool for some other form of marking or shaping, for example in pottery. The word is also used for a computer accessory . It usually refers to a narrow elongated staff, similar to a modern ballpoint pen. Many styli are heavily curved to be held more easily...



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
Wratten number
Wratten numbers are a labeling system for optical filters, usually for photographic use comprising a number sometimes followed by a letter. The number denotes the color of the filter, but is arbitrary and does not encode any information ; letters increase with increasing strength.They are named for...

 infra-red filter
Infrared photography
In infrared photography, the film or image sensor used is sensitive to infrared light. The part of the spectrum used is referred to as near-infrared to distinguish it from far-infrared, which is the domain of thermal imaging. Wavelengths used for photography range from about 700 nm to about...

. 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.

The images, at a resolution suitable for web page display, and text of the tablets were published on-line.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 Oxford University with the support of the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation
Andrew W. Mellon Foundation
The Andrew W. Mellon Foundation of New York City and Princeton, New Jersey in the United States, is a private foundation with five core areas of interest, endowed with wealth accumulated by the late Andrew W. Mellon of the Mellon family of Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. It is the product of the 1969...

 and the Arts and Humanities Research Board. The project directors were Alan Bowman
Alan Bowman
Alan Keir Bowman FBA is the Principal of Brasenose College, Oxford.Born in 1944 Bowman was educated at Manchester Grammar School, The Queen's College, Oxford and the University of Toronto...

, Charles Crowther and John Pearce. See
There are plans to publish recent transcriptions along with the material from Tab.Vindol. III , to the Vindolanda Tablets On-line.

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
Extensible Markup Language is a set of rules for encoding documents in machine-readable form. It is defined in the XML 1.0 Specification produced by the W3C, and several other related specifications, all gratis open standards....

 marked up format identifying the likely placement of characters and words with their transcription.

Exhibition and impact

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
2003 in television
The year 2003 in television involved some significant events.Below is a list of television-related events in 2003.For the American TV schedule, see: 2003-04 United States network television schedule.-Events:-Debuts:-1940s:...

 BBC Television
BBC Television
BBC Television is a service of the British Broadcasting Corporation. The corporation, which has operated in the United Kingdom under the terms of a Royal Charter since 1927, has produced television programmes from its own studios since 1932, although the start of its regular service of television...

 documentary Our Top Ten Treasures
Our Top Ten Treasures
Our Top Ten Treasures was a 2003 special episode of the BBC Television series Meet the Ancestors which profiled the ten most important treasures unearthed in Britain, as voted for by a panel of experts from the British Museum.-Production:...

. Viewers were invited to vote for their favourite, and the tablets came top of the poll.

The 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).

External links

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