Touted to be one of the most important discoveries at the Roman fort of Vindolanda in the last 25 years, archaeologists (from the Vindolanda Trust) had uncovered a cache of around 25 Roman ink documents, better known as the Vindolanda writing tablets. The discovery was made on 22nd June, and as such comprises a range of items including list compilations and personal correspondence that probably date from the last years of 1st century AD. Most of these very rare objects, made of thin slices of wood less 2 mm in thickness, were preserved by the combined effects of dampness and anaerobic earth at the site.
Now for the uninitiated, the Vindolanda was originally constructed as a Roman auxiliary fort (castrum) in northern England before the Hadrian’s Wall, and is presently situated near the modern village of Bardon Mill, Northumberland. And while historically the fort strategically guarded a Roman military road, the site later became famous from the archaeological perspective with the late 20th century discoveries of the Vindolanda wooden tablets that covered military and private correspondence (along with ‘Adidas’ like shoes).
Reverting to the latest discovery in question here, archaeologists after painstakingly salvaging the written material, were pleasantly surprised by the relatively well preserved state of these ancient Roman documents. According to them some of the letters were complete while others were found with their partial or whole confronting pages. Pertaining to the latter, the ‘confronting’ specimens with their pages being protected by the back-side of the adjoining pages, are expected to be particularly significant as they have the greatest chance of preserving the original Roman ink-writing.
As for the content of these 2,000-year old letters, some of the segments have already been deciphered by the researchers. For example, in one of the letters, a certain Masclus asks for a leave (commeatus) from his commanding officer. And intriguingly enough, this Masclus character is already known from a previously discovered letter, in which he asks for more beer to be supplied to his outpost.
Currently these salvaged Roman letters are undergoing painstaking conservation and infrared photography, thus allowing researchers to delve deeper into their fascinating content. Such insights in turn can certainly aid historians (and public alike) to better comprehend the ancient cultural as well as military scope of the Vindolanda fort (and probably even Roman Britain as a whole). Dr Andrew Birley, CEO of the Vindolanda Trust and Director of Excavations, talked about the discoveries in a glad manner –
What an incredible day, truly exceptional. You can never take these things for granted as the anaerobic conditions needed for their survival are very precise. I was fortunate enough to be involved when my father, Dr Robin Birley, excavated a bonfire site of Vindolanda tablets in 1992 and I had hoped, but never truly expected, that the day might come when we would find another hoard of such well preserved documents again during a day on our excavations.
I am sure that the archaeological staff, students and volunteers who took part on this excavation will always remember the incredible excitement as the first document was recognized in the trench and carefully lifted out. It was half a confronting tablet, two pages stuck together with the tell-tale tie holes and V notches at the top of the pages. The crowd of visitors who gathered at the edge of the excavation fences were also fascinated to see tablet after tablet being liberated from a deep trench several meters down.
Source / Images Credit: Vindolanda Trust