The Vindolanda Tablets ( A Brief Update )

28 Mar


In spring 1973, Robin Birley, Director of Excavations at Vindolanda Roman Fort, ,just south of Hadrian’s Wall in Northumberland (Northern England), made the greatest discovery of his life;  a small fragment of wood which unfolded to reveal ink-marks before the wood went black on exposure to air. It was later shown to be part of a letter sent with socks sandals and underpants. The discovery was made during excavation of deep, damp levels sealed by successive layers of clay in repeated re-buildings .Further  excavation in 1974 and 1975 brought the total number of tablets or groups of fragments to over 200, of which more than half had some writing on.

Archaeologists at work at Vindolanda

Archaeologists at work at Vindolanda

Since then, excavation on other parts of the site has revealed many more, and the corpus of Vindolanda Tablets now totals more than 1600. When found the fragile fragments are removed in soil blocks for trench-side excavation ,then  placed in water for cleaning, and afterwards immersed in ‘ baths ‘  of methyl alcohol and ether to dry them out, restore their colour and make them easier to read. The tablets have been transcribed and translated by specialist papyrologists Alan Bowman and David Thomas.

Roman writing tablet Vindolanda l

The tablet above is a letter from Octavius to Candidus  concerning supplies of wheat ,Hides and sinews.

The Vindolanda Tablets are usually between  1mm and 2mm thick, though sometimes as much as 3mm. They range between 16cm to 20cm and 6cm to 9cm in size; typically, they are about the size of a modern postcard. They are different from wax writing-tablets,inscribed  using a metal stylus (examples of both have been found at Vindolanda): These were for temporary records.

Vindolanda Tablet Invitation.

This tablet was a party invitation from Claudia Severa to Sulpicia Lepidina

The Vindolanda tablets were designed  either for short term records such as inventories or give – aways  (e.g.personal letters). Very fine- grained smooth surfaced, they were expressly designed to be inscribed in ink. (Roman pens with iron nibs and inkpots have been found.) A message was written, and the leaf was then folded in half. Sometimes, for longer documents, one or more such leaves might be tied together. The corpus includes records of purchases and supplies ,personal letters of recommendation , reports by NCO’s, requests for leave, and private letters, very often about money matters, others preoccupied with such everyday trivia as birthday parties and the social rounds of the officer class.

Soldiers on Hadrians Wall

Soldiers on Hadrians Wall


The great majority of the tablets date from c. AD92-104/105, when the fort was occupied by the Ninth Cohort of Batavians, a part mounted 1,000 strong,” milliary ” auxiliary unit. Fort and garrison formed part of a defensive frontier system- the Stanegate Line  created during the Roman withdrawal from Scotland between c. AD85 and 105. After the construction of Hadrian’s Wall  (AD 121 or 122 onwards) , Vindolanda continued to be used as a military base, remaining in use until the early 5th century AD.

The international importance of the Vindolanda Tablets lies in the light they shine on the highly bureaucratized character of the Roman Imperial Army and on the many details of everyday military life. The social gulf between  aristocratic officer-class and the many rank-and- file, for example, is revealed by letters referring to the social lives of officers’ wives, in contrast, ordinary soldiers were not allowed to marry (though they had relationships with local women). Aspects of military supply emerge from records which indicate foodstuffs arriving at the fort in a dribble of small consignments, presumably from local farmers.

The Roman system of patronage is represented in letters seeking to gain promotions through personal contacts. Through the Vindolanda Tablets we see the economic, social, and military workings of the frontier in the Roman Empire’s golden age.

Note:- For those interested.  Excavations begin at Vindolanda  Monday 1st April to Friday 6th September 2013.  I shall look forward to news of more interesting finds hopefully more of the Tablets.  Stay Tuned.

World Archaeology

Photo’s Wikipedia Commons.


Posted by on March 28, 2013 in Uncategorized


2 responses to “The Vindolanda Tablets ( A Brief Update )

  1. nutsfortreasure

    April 13, 2013 at 12:23 pm

    Loved the post!


  2. Stephen G. Hipperson

    April 14, 2013 at 10:05 am

    We managed to visit Vindolanda on the way back from somewhere else, but we didn’t have along enough. It’s high on the list of places to revisit – perhaps with a couple of nights nearby – lovely countryside round there.



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