Plates from Vindoland. Roman soldiers wore underpants!

Invitation from Claudia Severa Sulpicia Lepidine, plate # 291. British museum

… and wrote letters on it, as they carve on a seal …
Exodus 39:30

Ancient writings tell. In our last article about the excavations in Windoland, we talked about the discovery of wooden tablets there, which became the oldest written monuments in the UK. Today, more ancient tablets have been found, the so-called Bloomberg tablets. But we will tell about them some other time. And today, let the tablets from Vindolanda tell us about their content, they are, after all, a very rich source of information about life on the northern border of Roman Britain.

They look like this: these are thin wooden plates the size of a postcard, on which the text is written in black ink. They date back to the 1st-2nd centuries AD (that is, they are contemporaries of the construction of Hadrian’s wall). Although papyrus records were known from finds elsewhere in the Roman Empire, the wooden tablets with ink text were not found until 1973, when archaeologist Robin Birli discovered them at Windoland, a Roman fort in northern England.

Plates from Vindoland.  Roman soldiers wore underpants!

Fresco from Pompeii. It shows a wooden fold in the form of a book, in which they wrote on a surface covered with wax

Like the texts of Novgorod birch bark letters, the texts of these tablets are absolutely unstructured, that is, they are of a random nature. There are texts related to the life support of the fort, there are personal messages to the soldiers of the Vindoland garrison, their families and slaves. They even found an invitation to a lady’s birthday party. The party took place around AD 100, so this text is possibly the oldest surviving document written in Latin by a woman.

This is how the Roman “notebook” looked like

Almost all of the tablets are kept in the British Museum, but some were nevertheless exhibited in Windoland. The texts of 752 tablets were translated and published in 2010. Moreover, the finds of tablets in Vindoland are still continuing.

The wooden plaques found in Windoland were made from different types of wood: birch, alder and oak, which also grew here. But the stylus tablets, which were also found and intended for writing with a metal stylus on wax, were imported goods and were not made from local wood. The thickness of the plates is 0.25–3 mm, the typical size is 20 × 8 cm (the size of a modern postcard). They were folded in half, with an inscription to the inscription, and the ink was soot, gum arabic and water. In the 1970s and 1980s alone, about 500 of these tablets were excavated, all thanks to the local oxygen-free soil in which the wood could survive without decomposing.

The Romans borrowed the technology of writing on waxed wooden tablets from the Greeks. Image on a Greek vessel. Berlin Museum

The first records discovered in March 1973 were taken to epigraphist Richard Wright, but the tree’s rapid oxygenation caused them to turn black and unreadable. Then they were sent by Alison Rutherford to Newcastle University School of Medicine for multispectral photography. Photographs were taken in infrared light, in which the text was read for the first time. But the result was still disappointing, since the texts at first could not be deciphered. And the reason was simple. None of the researchers of this form of handwritten type simply knew! However, Alan Bowman of the University of Manchester and David Thomas of the University of Durham were able to transcribe it.

Another fresco from Pompeii. It depicts a woman named Sappho after a famous Greek poetess. But it is not known for sure whether this is it. It is important that she holds writing supplies in her hands. National Archaeological Museum of Naples

Fort Vindoland served as a garrison base before the construction of Hadrian’s Wall, but most of the tablets are slightly older than the wall, which was begun in 122 AD. In total, it was possible to distinguish five periods in the initial history of this fort:

1. Ok. 85–92 AD, the first fort was built.
2. Ok. 92–97 AD, the fort was expanded.
3. Ok. 97-103 biennium AD, further expansion of the fort.
4. Ok. 104-120 biennium AD, break and re-occupation of the fort.
5. Ok. 120-130 AD, the period when Hadrian’s Wall was built.

It turns out that the tablets were made in periods 2 and 3 (c. 92-103 CE), and most were written before 102 CE. They were used for official records of the affairs of the Vindoland camp and the personal files of officers and their households. The largest group of texts refers to the correspondence between Flavius ​​Cerialis, prefect of the ninth cohort of the Batavians, and his wife Sulpicia Lepidina. Several tablets contain records of traders and contractors. But who they are is not clear from the tablets. For example, a certain Octavian, the author of tablet number 343, is clearly a merchant, because he is engaged in the trade in wheat, hides and sinews, but all this does not prove that he is a civilian. He could well have been one of the officers of the garrison, and even a private.

And this is how our Novgorod birch bark letters look like. And all thanks to the soil that has preserved wood and birch bark for us!

The most famous document is plaque # 291, written around AD 100. Claudia Severoi, wife of the commander of a nearby fort, Sulpicia Lepidine, who contains an invitation to her to a birthday party. The invitation is one of the earliest known examples of a woman writing a text in Latin. Interestingly, there are two styles of handwriting on the tablet, with most of the text written with one hand (most likely by a housewife), but with a final greeting, apparently personally added by Claudia Severa herself (in the lower right part of the tablet).

The tablets are written in Latin and shed light on the literacy rate in Roman Britain. One of the tablets confirms that the Roman soldiers wore underpants (subligaria), and also testifies to the high literacy in the Roman army.

Plates from Vindoland. British museum

Another small discovery concerned how the Romans called the aborigines. Before the tablets were discovered, historians could only guess if the Romans had any nickname for the British. It turns out that there was such a nickname. The Romans called them Brittunculi (short for Britto), that is, “little Britons”. Found it on one of the Vindoland tablets, and now we know what derogatory or patronizing term was used in the Roman garrisons, which were based in Northern Britain, to describe the local people.

The peculiarity of the texts from Vindolanda lies in the fact that they seem to be written in letters other than the Latin alphabet. The text rarely contains the unusual or distorted letterforms or extravagant ligatures that can be found in the Greek papyri of the same period, they are simply written in a slightly different way. Additional problems for transcription are the use of abbreviations such as “h” for human, or “cos” for consularis, and arbitrary word splitting at the end of lines due to the size of the tablets.

On many tablets, the ink is highly discolored, so in some cases it is impossible to distinguish what is written. Therefore, you have to turn to infrared photographs, which give a much more legible version of what is written than the original tablets. However, the photographs contain marks that appear to be written, but they are not letters; in addition, they contain a lot of lines, dots and other dark marks that were not written. Therefore, some signs had to be interpreted in a very subjective way, based on the general meaning of what was written.

Stele of Flavius ​​Solva from Noricum. In his hands he holds writing supplies. Archaeological Museum of Graz, Austria

There are many letters among the texts. For example, the cavalry decurion Masculus wrote a letter to Prefect Flavius ​​Cerialis asking for precise instructions for his men the next day, including a polite request to send even more beer to the garrison (which had completely consumed the entire previous supply of beer). It is not clear why he did not do this orally, but, apparently, they were separated by a certain distance, and the business of the service prevented them from meeting. The documents contain a lot of information about the various duties that the men performed at the fort. For example, they had to be bath caretakers, shoemakers, construction workers, plasterers. Among the people assigned to the garrison were doctors, caretakers of carts and stoves, and stoker bath attendants.

In addition to Vindolanda, wooden plaques with inscriptions have been found in twenty Roman settlements in Great Britain. Most of them, however, were bookbills with a stylus to write on their wax-covered pages.

The fact that the letters were sent from different places on Hadrian’s Wall and beyond (Catterick, York and London) raises the question of why more of them were found in Windoland than in other places, but it is impossible to give a definite answer to it. The point is that the anaerobic soils found in Windoland are not unique. Similar soils are found elsewhere, such as parts of London. Perhaps due to their fragility in other places, they were mechanically destroyed during excavations, because these “pieces of wood” were simply not given importance.

Sign from Magliano. And the Etruscans, for example, sometimes wrote on gold plates, as well as on metal lead plates. Florence Archeology Museum

Today the tablets are kept in the British Museum, where their collection is displayed in the gallery “Roman Britain” (room 49). They were included in the list of British archaeological finds selected by experts from the British Museum for the documentary “Our Ten Treasures” (BBC Television, 2003). Viewers were asked to vote for their favorite artifacts, and these tablets took first place among all the others.

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