In Brief

Ancient Roman Waxed Writing Tablets Unearthed in Central London

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Writing tablet 44, the earliest intrinsically dated document from Roman Britain (all photos ©MOLA)

IOUs, a note to a brewer, and the earliest handwritten document known from Britain — these are among the 405, nearly 2,000-year-old Roman waxed writing tablets archaeologists have unearthed and deciphered over years of excavations at Bloomberg’s forthcoming headquarters in London. Since 2010, the Museum of London Archaeology (MOLA) team has been exploring the ancient trove; this month, they released their research on the tablets, now available in an extensive publication.

Archaeologist with a tablet just discovered on site (c) MOLA
Archaeologist with a tablet just discovered on site (click to enlarge)

The discovery is huge, forming Britain’s largest and earliest collection of such tablets. It more than quadruples the number of legible tablets previously known from London: of the 405 most recently studied tablets, researchers have deciphered over 80; only 19 were readable before the Bloomberg excavations. They all relate to trade, finance, and legal dealings, revealing London in its early years as a hub of commerce — an especially fitting find for the site, considering the future communications to occur in the soon-to-come headquarters. Even the names of over 100 people who lived in the Roman-era city crop up, from soldiers to slaves, a judge to a cooper.

“We always had high hopes for the Bloomberg dig, situated in the heart of the Roman and modern city and with perfect wet conditions for the survival of archaeology, but the findings far exceeded all expectations,” MOLA director and archaeologist Sophie Jackson said in a statement. “The writing tablets are truly a gift for archaeologists trying to get closer to the first Roman Britons.”

Decipherable waxed writing tablets are rare since the messages usually do not survive the passage of time. Wax is poured into a slightly sunken area of a wooden frame, crafted in the shape of a small tile. The writer would then use a stylus to etch a message into the wax, with the markings at times penetrating the doughy surface to scratch the underlying wood. Remnants of notes, therefore, sometimes remained, although reused tablets would often present several overlays of etchings. The wood itself rarely survives underground; in the case of the Bloomberg tablets, wet mud from a now-buried river helped to preserve the fragile material.

19. Tablet being conserved in a freeze drier (c) MOLA
A tablet being conserved in a freeze drier
1. Bloomberg construction site during demolition (c) MOLA 09312002
The Bloomberg construction site during demolition

After MOLA’s team photographed the treated tablets and combined the images to accentuate the scratches, cursive Latin expert Dr. Roger Tomlin used microscopic analysis to read and reconstruct the texts. One highlight of the collection is Britain’s earliest handwritten document, measuring about 5.5 inches long, and also representing one of the earliest financial documents from London. Dated to the exact day of January 8, 57 AD, the tablet is a record of one man’s debt to a merchant of 105 denarii for goods delivered. Another tablet from 65–70 AD reveals the word “Londinio,” which researchers believe is the earliest reference to “London.” One splintered frame shows the incomplete alphabet scrawled across two lines, which may be evidence for Roman schooling — possibly the first of its kind found in Roman Britain.

Besides the hundreds of tablets, MOLA also unearthed evidence of over 50 Roman buildings as well as nearly 15,000 artifacts over the course of its excavations. Some of these objects will remain at that site, on display in the new Bloomberg office as part of a free public exhibition. Alongside a handful of the found writing tablets will be a case of over 700 artifacts as well as the reconstructed remains of the London Mithraeum, a temple to the Roman god Mithras discovered in the 1950s. MOLA will send the remainder of the collection to a museum for safe preservation.

tablet 6
Writing tablet 6 (c. 65 AD) reads, “Londinio Mogontio,” which translates to, “‘In London, to Mogontius…” — the earliest reference to London
Writing tablet 79, which shows what appears to be the last two lines of the alphabet, "ABCDIIFGHIKL MNOPQRST"
Writing tablet 79, which shows what appears to be the last two lines of the alphabet, “ABCDIIFGHIKL MNOPQRST”
tablet14
Writing tablet 14, which reveals script that translates to, “You will give (this) to Junius the cooper, opposite (the house of) Catullus.”
4. Excavating the building where many tablets were found (c) MOLA 40913006
Excavating the building where many tablets were found
14. Roger Tomlin deciphers the Bloomberg tablets (c) MOLA
Roger Tomlin deciphers the Bloomberg tablets
16. Cursive Latin text on a reconstruction waxed writing tablet (c) NextShoot
Cursive Latin text on a reconstruction waxed writing tablet
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Writing tablet 33, which translates to, “…Classicus, prefect of the Sixth Cohort of Nervii” — likely a reference to Julius Classicus, a commanding Roman cavalry regiment


tab12
Writing tablet 12, which translates to “‘To Tertius, the brewer”
24. Triptych type tablet graphic (c) MOLA
Triptych type tablet graphic
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