The Roman wooden tablets from the Bloomberg site in London

“Between 2010 and 2014, archeologists digging in London’s financial district, on the site of a new British headquarters for Bloomberg, made an astonishing discovery—a collection of more than four hundred wooden tablets, preserved in the muck of an underground river. The tablets, postcard-sized sheets of fir, spruce, and larch, dated mainly from a couple of decades after the Roman conquest of Britain, in A.D. 43, straddling the period, in the reign of Nero, when Boudica’s rebellion very nearly got rid of the occupation altogether.”

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Researchers believe this tablet is the earliest ever reference to London predating Tacitus’ mention of London in his Annals which were produced about 50 years later.
Dated AD 65/70-80, it reads “Londinio Mogontio” which translates to “‘In London, to Mogontius” (photo: BBC)

A volume on the tablets was recently (2016) published by Roger Tomlin, a Latin epigraphist. Epigraphers usually study texts carved in stone, where the writing follows certain conventions and is aimed to be legible, since it will be seen by many people. It is unusual to find texts of more private nature, and the Bloomberg tablets are just that: “They are, perhaps, reminiscent of the kind of communications that we, in the twenty-first century, might send by e-mail—functional, expedient, lacking in literary merit. There are notes of indebtedness, memos to merchants, and a reckoning of an account for beer.”

But besides the mundane content of these texts, their writing also escapes the norm of what official Roman inscriptions have gotten us used to: “While the lettering on Roman masonry is, for the most part, wonderfully regular, striding along in neat capitals, the tablets are written in cursive, which is wildly various in style and quality. Occasionally the writing is tidy and clear, but most often it is rushed, sloppy, fragmentary, and damaged, and can, to the uninitiated, even to one who knows Latin well, resemble not so much actual writing as a series of bewilderingly arbitrary strokes and curlicues.”

And a brief comment on how the tablets were used: “The wooden tablets were designed to be reusable; they were originally covered with a layer of wax, into which lettering was scratched with a stylus. But the wax has long since disappeared, and what is left are marks that the scribe inadvertently made by scratching right through it, onto the wood behind. To complicate matters, the tablets sometimes bear two or more layers of scratches, jostling and confusing each other. Thus Tomlin examines not traces but traces of traces. ”

The above excerpts all come from an interview Roger Tomlin gave recently for The New Yorker. Here (BBC) and here (The Guardian) you can see some more photos of tablets, of the site where they were found and the condition in which they were in during the excavation. This short video also shows the tablets and how they were treated and studied. The archaeological site was known from the 1950’s, when it had been partially excavated, and is known to have been in the heart of Roman London, but new excavations from 2010 onward were required before a new building for the news agency Bloomberg would be constructed. The ancient neighborhood also testified to a temple dedicated to the god Mithras, known as the London Mithraeum, which was excavated in 1954, dismantled and relocated, still visible today in the vicinity (Queen Vistoria Street).

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Over 700 artefacts from the Bloomberg excavation will be displayed in a public exhibition space that will sit within the new Bloomberg building, including the earliest-dated writing tablet from Britain. This tablet, as The Guardian notes, is “the earliest legal document and the earliest carrying a date from Roman Britain, was written on 8 January AD57, when Tibullus wrote promising to repay Gratus – both men described as freed slaves – 105 denarii, half a year’s pay for a Roman legionary, for goods delivered.”

The London Mithraeum exhibition is planned to open in autumn 2017.

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