“Another thing” is a series of occasional posts, each presenting a particularly interesting, beautiful or unusual object on display at one of the museums or sites on our tours.
I'm immensely grateful to the Vindolanda Trust and especially Sonya Galloway for helping me research and illustrate this post. I also thank my colleague Paul Beston, the expert guide who leads our tours on Hadrian's Wall.
Scraps with scrawls. If you look more closely, the scraps are of wood and the scrawls are writing, in ink. They don't look like much and indeed they were (eventually) not considered important in their day, which is why they ended up discarded in rubbish pits - rubbish pits of yore that are, as is often the case, treasure pits to modern archaeologists. That's how things go: garbage 1,900 years ago, treasure today. What's shown in the picture is just a tiny sample of the huge body of incredibly important archaeological evidence that we call the Vindolanda Tablets. In spite of their unassuming appearance, the Vindolanda Tablets are one of the most significant archaeological discoveries of the twentieth century - and a discovery that is still ongoing!
What you see is a series of rectangular panels made of thinly-cut sheets ('leaves') of wood, usually in pairs of two, together roughly the size and shape of a modern postcard. When found, they were folded shut, with writing preserved on the inside surfaces.
"... the Britons are unprotected by armour (?). There are very many cavalry. The cavalry do not use swords nor do the wretched Britons mount in order to throw javelins." (Vindolanda Tablet 164)
So what are they? Too fast - to appreciate the Vindolanda tablets, we need to establish a bit of context. Context is a web of interconnecting bits of information - what our tour experts specialise in bringing to you.
Where to start? First, with the place. Vindolanda is the Roman name of a place in Northumbria in the north of England (its modern name being Little Chesters or Chesterholm). It is set on a plateau overlooking much of the surrounding area, just 1.6km (a mile) south of Hadrian's Wall, that extraordinary second century (AD) Roman border defence separating the Roman province of Britannia from the 'barbarian' lands to the north.
Next, its history. Vindolanda was a key hub within the complex infrastructure supporting the Roman border, long before the Wall was even built. The Roman Empire conquered Britain in AD 43, initially laying claim to all the island or most of it. For various reasons this proved not quite viable, so a border of sorts appears to have been established in the 80s AD. During that time, the strategic plateau of Vindolanda was chosen as the site of a wooden fort, which was used, enlarged, demolished and rebuilt on various occasions over the next four decades. Eventually, a stone fort was built around the 120s AD, not long after the Wall was constructed, and from then on Vindolanda was part of the supporting infrastructure in the Wall's immediate hinterland. It was rebuilt once more around AD 300, and finally abandoned in the fifth century.
“18 May, net number of the First Cohort of Tungrians, of which the commander is Iulius Verecundus the prefect, 752, including centurions 6. (...) Total absentees 456 (...) present 296. From these, sick 15, wounded 6, suffering from inflammation of the eyes 10 (...). Remainder, fit for active service 265, including centurion 1.” Vindolanda Tablet 154
But who was there? Vindolanda was not a legionary fort. It was what we call an auxiliary fort, a base for auxiliary troops.
Auxiliary troops? To cut a long story short, the overwhelming majority of inhabitants of the Roman Empire during the first and second centuries AD were not Roman either by ethnicity or by citizenship. To protect the vast area of the Empire and its difficult borders, a large army was necessary, its core being the Roman legions, made up of foot soldiers who had to be Roman citizens, a rather limited resource. To make up for that limit, other free-born Roman subjects were recruited in various regions of the Empire to support the army. As far as we understand, they were obliged to serve for 25 years, after which the soldier and his family would receive Roman citizenship and the privileges that brought. In the era we are concerned with, such auxiliaries provided up to two thirds of Roman manpower. They were equipped, organised and trained largely similarly to Roman legionaries, but they also provided some specialised units not present in the regular legions, such as (most) cavalry, skirmishers, slingers etc. Habitually, they were stationed away from their homelands. We know that the successive garrisons of Vindolanda consisted primarily of troops from various northwestern Germanic tribes, such as Batavians, Nervians and Tungrians, all of whom hailed from areas now in the Netherlands and Belgium, but soldiers from Gaul (France) may also have been present.
Does that answer who was there? Not fully. The Roman army, like any army, relied on all manner of infrastructure: supplies of military equipment of course, also food, building materials, clothing etc. But that's not all. Those soldiers were young to middle-aged men and they had lives to live. They needed services, entertainment, occasional luxuries, social life, and so on. As happened in many such places, a garrison town (a vicus) developed outside the fort, and human life took place within it, involving locals, Romans, and Roman subjects. Many soldiers had families living in those places.
How do we know all this? Archaeology! Vindolanda was recognised as a Roman site already in the sixteenth century, and the first archaeological excavations there took place in 1814. But it's really in the 20th century that the site came to the fore, with systematic exploration beginning in the 1930s and continuing to this day - our guests have a chance to observe ongoing excavations nearly every time we visit! That's how we learn about the past hands-on. What makes Vindolanda so special is the extraordinary waterlogged conditions of the site. Much of the earlier material lies below the water table, thus in anaerobic conditions, preserving organic materials from decay. Vindolanda has produced a staggering amount of preserved objects made of wood and leather, such as shoes, gloves, clothing, saddles, bits of furniture and so on, all of them objects we normally expect to decay in decades. That in itself would make Vindolanda very important.
So, back to the initial question. What are the Vindolanda Tablets?
The Vindolanda Tablets, first discovered in 1973, are part of this story of fortuitous preservation, but they're much more unique even than the aforementioned items.
Technically, they are what we said at the beginning, bits of wood with writing on them. To be exact, they are carefully-made thin boards of smoothed wood (primarily spruce or larch), most measuring about 10 by 15cm (4" by 6"). The writing, done in ink using a metal pen, was usually arranged in two columns side by side. Afterwards, the tablet was scored in the middle and folded, so that the text was on the inside of the fold, after which the tablet was tied shut and probably sealed with wax. Some, most likely all, also bore writing on the outside, indicating the intended recipient. The purpose of all this was probably to keep the contents invisible to the eyes of the couriers transporting them.
"Sollemnis to Paris his brother, very many greetings. I want you to know that I am in very good health, as I hope you are in turn, you neglectful man, who have sent me not even one letter. But I think that I am behaving in a more considerate fashion in writing to you ..." Vindolanda Tablet 311
This also indicates their function. They are communications, essentially letters. That's also clear from the actual content in many cases, as they frequently start with an identification of the sender and a greeting to the addressee, in most cases an official of the Roman army. This means, of course, that many of the tablets were not necessarily written in Vindolanda, but sent there from elsewhere. Vindolanda is where they ended up, hopefully read, apparently archived, and eventually disposed, only to be found nearly 2,000 years later. Some are letters originating from Vindolanda, in which case we may be looking at drafts or archival copies - like your email's 'sent' folder.
Vindolanda has yielded more than 1,300 tablets (or fragments thereof) so far, with the most recent larger cache discovered in 2017! All appear to date between AD 80 and 130. By the way, such tablets were not unique to Vindolanda. The Romans called them sectiles, and other examples have survived, especially the recently-discovered and somewhat older Bloomberg Tablets from London. Nevertheless, the Vindolanda finds are the largest known assemblage of such documents, indeed the largest collection of original Roman handwriting other than papyri from Egypt!
"... bruised beans: two modii, chickens: twenty, a hundred apples, if you can find nice ones, a hundred or two hundred eggs, if they are for sale there at a fair price... 8 sextarii of fish-sauce ... a modius of olives ...". (For convenience: a Roman modius is a measure of volume, about 8.7 litres or 1.9 gallons and a sextarius is 0.55l or 20 fl. oz. Olives would almost certainly be an import to Britain at the time. Thus, this is not a household order - when did you last buy 200 eggs?) Vindolanda Tablet 302
In many cases, the tablets are hard or impossible to decipher with the naked eye. Specialised techniques, like infrared photography are used, after necessary conservation. Not surprisingly, all of the Vindolanda tablets are written in Latin, using Roman cursive script.
Finally, what are the Vindolanda Tablets about? It varies greatly. Many of them are of an administrative nature, noting things like requests for equipment or supplies, expense accounts and so on. More unusual tablets include a report on the state of the troops present at Vindolanda and an assessment of the fighting capabilities of the (northern) British tribes (famously using the term brittunculi, 'little Britons' or 'wretched Britons'). Both are quoted further above.
"Claudia Severa to her Lepidina, greetings. On 11 September, sister, for the day of the celebration of my birthday, I give you a warm invitation to make sure that you come to us, to make the day more enjoyable for me by your arrival (...). Give my greetings to your Cerialis. My Aelius and my little son send him their greetings. (Written in a different hand:) I shall expect you, sister. Farewell, sister, my dearest soul, as I hope to prosper, and hail. Vindolanda tablet 291
A few of the tablets are of a more civilian and personal nature, such as an affectionate letter by one soldier to his brother (or close friend?) berating him for not writing, or the delightful note sent by Claudia Severa to her sister Lepidina, inviting her to join for a birthday celebration. One fragmented tablet appears to be a reused one, with part of a letter on one side and a carefully written line from Virgil's Aeneid on the other - scholars think it's a writing exercise!
Obviously, these tablets provide immensely valuable information about day-to-day life in a garrison town of Roman Britain that would otherwise be completely unavailable to us. This is not the stuff historians write about, not even the kind of detail we find in public inscriptions, but series of insights into much more down-to-earth practicalities of the era and the place. The tablets allow us a glimpse not just of Roman army organisation, but of the actual lives people lived some 80 generations ago: someone's delight in oysters and his desire to share them with his friend Lucius, Claudia's wish to see her sister, someone's complaint about a savage beating, the troops' need for warm clothing... They have a potential to reveal all manner of detail: who would have known that the northwestern Germanic tribes within the Roman Empire had a penchant for Greek personal names, such as Paris or Elpis?
"... I have sent you ... pairs of socks from Sattua [unfortunately, we do not know where that was], two pairs of sandals and two pairs of underpants (...). Greet (...) Elpis, (...), Tetricus and all your messmates with whom I pray that you live in the greatest good fortune." Vindolanda Tablet 346
You can delve into these fascinating documents by browsing (some of) the tablets on the Vindolanda Tablets website provided by the University of Oxford, with detailed explanations (it is the source of the translations used in this post). You can also see a selection of them in the British Museum, London. Best of all, you can join us on our Hadrian's Wall tours, either Exploring Hadrian's Wall or Walking Hadrian's Wall, to see the site itself and visit the wonderful displays in the Vindolanda Museum, including its selection of some of the most recently-discovered tablets, all embedded in our tour expert's erudite and lively narrative about the region and its history!