Vindolanda Wooden Tablets: Ancient Military And Private Correspondence Left By Departing Roman Troops

A. Sutherland - AncientPages.com  The fort of Vindolanda, one of the earliest Roman garrisons, built by the Roman army in England, is one of Europe's most important Roman archeological sites.

It guarded the Stanegate, the Roman road from the River Tyne to the Solway Firth, and was situated behind Hadrian’s Wall, near the modern village of Bardon Mill in Northumberland, England.

The fort was originally constructed in turf and timber before Hadrian's Wall was built around 122 AD, and was repaired and rebuilt several times. Credits: Vindolanda Charitable Trust

The fort was originally constructed in turf and timber before Hadrian's Wall was built around 122 AD, and was repaired and rebuilt several times. Credits: Vindolanda Charitable Trust

Vindolanda garrison was destroyed and completely rebuilt at least nine times. Each rebuild, each community, left their own unique features on the surrounding landscape.

To this famous Roman fort, there are related the Vindolanda Letters also known as the Vindolanda tablets, the oldest surviving handwritten in Latin documents in Britain, which are considered the best source of information about life on the northern frontier of Roman Britain.

The first post-Roman record of the ruins at Vindolanda was made by the antiquarian William Camden, in his Britannia (1586). Occasional travellers reached the site over the next two hundred years, and the accounts they left are useful because they predate much of the stone-stealing that has damaged the site.

The first post-Roman record of the ruins at Vindolanda was made by the antiquarian William Camden, in his Britannia (1586). Occasional travellers reached the site over the next two hundred years, and the accounts they left are useful because they predate much of the stone-stealing that has damaged the site.

Excavation of the fort, began in 1970 and the tablets had not been recovered until 1973, when archaeologist Robin Birley unearthed them at the site of a Roman fort in Vindolanda, northern England.

Excavations yielded around 1,000 wooden writing tablets left by departing troops and well-preserved in the environment of the peat.

Most of the 752 Vindolanda letters were written during the period 92-102 AD and some of them are dated from 103 to 130 AD.

Written in ink on postcard-size sheets of wood, due to lack of papyrus), the longer documents were tied together by punching a hole in the corner.  The writing tablets used the local woods – birch, alder or oak taken from young trees.

The texts of 752 tablets have been transcribed, translated and published but archaeologists still find new tablets of Vindolanda. Credits: , British Museum,

The texts of 752 tablets have been transcribed, translated and published but archaeologists still find new tablets of Vindolanda. Credits: , British Museum,

The letters enable us to imagine community life and give a unique insight into the Roman official military correspondence, which demonstrated the army’s work assignments, efficiency, the soldiers’ food and how they did spend their time off.

See also:

Hadrian’s Wall: North-West Frontier Of The Roman Empire For Nearly 300 Years

Many of the letters are strictly private, such as one recorded on the tablet 346, which reveals the following message:

‘I have sent you ... pairs of socks from Sattua, two pairs of sandals and two pairs of underpants.’  It was obviously a bit cold for soldiers on the north-west frontier of the Roman Empire.

Letter from Octavius to Candidus concerning supplies of wheat, hides and sinews. Credits: British Museum

Letter from Octavius to Candidus concerning supplies of wheat, hides and sinews. Credits: British Museum

In one letter (tablet 291) Claudia Severa invites her sister Sulpicia Lepidina to her birthday party held 100 AD.

‘ On 11 September, sister, for the day of the celebration of my birthday, I give you a warm invitation to make sure that you come to us, to make the day more enjoyable for me by your arrival… I shall expect you, sister. Farewell, sister, my dearest soul, as I hope to prosper, and hail.

The men stationed at Vindolanda fort, were Germans writing in Latin, serving the Roman army in England. Through these letters recorded on sheets of wood, these people remained connected with other soldiers and their families living  across the Empire.

This impressive collection of letters includes a list of household goods, an official account of troop strength, a memorandum on the customs of the Britons, a letter of recommendation to the provincial governor, a birthday invitation from the wife of the garrison commander, and a letter from one soldier rebuking another for not writing more often.

There are also official reports, administrative accounts of the garrison, and personal letters.

Written by – A. Sutherland AncientPages.com Staff Writer

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