Roman Tablets Found In London Dig Contain Earliest Handwritten Documents In Britain

'It’s the first generation of Londoners speaking to us.'

01/06/2016 16:45

The earliest handwritten documents in Britain have been discovered among hundreds of Roman waxed writing tablets uncovered in an archaeological dig

The wooden tablets, discovered during excavations for Bloomberg’s new European headquarters near Mansion House in the City of London, have been described as “the email of the Roman world”, communicating business and legal dealings, the Press Association reported.

Among 410 tablets uncovered, 87 have been deciphered, including one addressed “In London, to Mogontius” and dated to 65-80 AD, making it the earliest reference in history to London, 50 years before it was cited by Roman historian Tacitus.

John Stillwell/PA Wire
A piece of wood with the Roman alphabet written on it in AD 60/62

They also include the earliest dated handwritten document in Britain, a financial record of money owed which bears the date January 8, 57 AD, and one archaeologically dated to 43-53 AD, the first decade of Roman rule in Britain.

Sophie Jackson, archaeologist and director at independent charitable company Museum of London Archaeology (MOLA), which led the dig, said they had high hopes for the excavation at the outset but the findings “far exceeded all expectations”.

“The tablets are hugely significant, they are the largest single assemblage of wax writing tablets found in Britain and what’s particularly special about them is they are so early.

“It’s the first generation of Londoners speaking to us,” she said.

The tablets, along with other organic materials such as wicker baskets and leather, were preserved by the lack of oxygen in the wet mud of the Walbrook, which dominated the area in Roman times but is now one of London’s many lost rivers.

Experts said the tablets, many of which are broken fragments, ended up in layers of soil used as landfill to manage the Walbrook, along with coins, pottery and wood which can be used to date them, while some have the dates written on them.

  • MOLA
  • MOLA
  • John Stillwell/PA Wire
    Luisa Duarte, a conservator for the Museum of London, holds a piece of wood with the words 'Londinio Mogontio' written on it in AD 65/80, which is the first reference to Roman London.
  • John Stillwell/PA Wire
    A piece of wood with the Roman alphabet written on it in AD 60/62.
  • MOLA
  • MOLA
  • John Stillwell/PA Wire
    The site of excavations for Bloomberg's new European headquarters.

Recesses in the rectangular tablets were originally filled with blackened beeswax that would have been written in using a stylus, examples of which were also found in the dig.

While the wax has not survived, marks sometimes went through to the wood and the handwriting - which looks quite different to the standard Roman alphabet to the untrained eye - can be deciphered in a process described as like “code-breaking”. 

One tablet is a contract from October 21, 62 AD, to bring “twenty loads of provisions” from Verulamium - modern day St Albans, Hertfordshire - to London, a year after the revolt by Iceni queen Boudica.

Roger Tomlin, Oxford University classicist and cursive Latin expert who deciphered the tablets, said the contract reveals the rapid recovery of Roman London and Verulamium after they were destroyed in the Boudican revolt.

He said the writings included references to beer deliveries, evidence of an early beer baron whose empire stretched from London to Carlisle, legal rulings, references to the military presence in the city and someone practising handwriting.

There is also a begging letter asking “by bread and salt” for a return of a favour, in the form of the payment as soon as possible of 26 denarii, and a warning that “they are boasting through the whole market that you have lent them money”.

An archaeologist with a recently-discovered tablet

Tomlin said the documents showed the business activities of the “carpet-bagging community” of early London.

“It was the new wild west frontier of the Roman Empire, with people streaming in behind the Roman army and exploiting the new province,” he said. 

“I am so lucky to be the first to read them again, after more than 19 centuries, and to imagine what these people were like, who founded the new city of London.”

In one instance, 19 tablets were found inside a wooden building which the archaeologists speculated could be the first office or first law firm in the City of London.

After they were excavated, the tablets were kept in water before being carefully cleaned and treated with a waxy substance to replace some of the water content and then freeze-dried.

More than 700 artefacts from the excavation will go on display late next year in an exhibition space in the new Bloomberg building.

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