In March 1973 the British archaeologist Robin Birley made a puzzling discovery. He had spent years in the thick, gray clay of northern England, excavating a first-century A.D. Roman fort called Vindolanda, but he had never before encountered so many small slivers of wood. Inwardly, he even began to wonder about the possibility of an ancient woodworking shop. But when he and his assistants examined the wood more closely, they spotted tiny black marks, possibly man-made. His curiosity piqued, Birley peeled apart two thin slivers of wood that were stuck together and made the discovery of a lifetime. For there, on the inner surfaces of the wood, he found writing.
Archaeologists had been working at Vindolanda, off and on, for more than a century before Birley, and they had often found writing—but always on the durable medium of stone and always inscribed in familiar Latin capitals. The new writing seemed something altogether different, apparently written in ink and in a script and language that Birley did not recognize. This was indeed a perplexing find, one whose mysteries very nearly remained unsolved—for as the excavators stood puzzling over their tiny text, the writing began to fade. After 15 minutes, they were no longer able to make out the characters at all.
Acting quickly in hope of preserving their find, the excavators packed the wood in damp moss and rushed it to Richard Wright of Durham University, who had literally written the book on Latin inscriptions in Britain.a However, when Birley 028uncovered the fragments for Wright to examine, the wood’s surface had turned black, and no traces of writing remained visible.
Fortunately, Wright did not give up hope. He suggested that the wood be turned over to Alison Rutherford, an expert in infrared and ultra-violet photography, whose cameras might reveal what the naked eye could not. His hunch proved correct. Infrared photography did capture the phantom text, once again revealing the first in a series of finds that would place Vindolanda at the forefront of Roman archaeology.
Vindolanda lies in a sparsely inhabited area of Northumberland, where the nearest establishments are a tavern called Twice-Brewed and a youth hostel called Once-Brewed. It is a land of surpassing beauty, colored a rich green by the soaking rains that fall almost daily, even in the summer. Tourists, however, esteem the area less for its natural beauty than for its most prominent man-made feature: Hadrian’s Wall.
The wall represented only a small fragment of the 029frontier defenses established by the redoubtable Emperor Hadrian (117–138 A.D.), who recognized the limits of Roman expansion and made the sober decision to defend rather than extend his state. Hadrian was not the first Roman emperor, however, to address Rome’s need for security against the Celtic tribes from the north of Britain. In the first century A.D., provincial governors frequently grappled with their northern neighbors, and around 85 A.D. a cohort of Roman auxiliaries built the first fort at Vindolanda as one of a series of outposts intended to support Roman soldiers in southern Scotland.
Settling at Vindolanda—wet Vindolanda, soaked by rain from above and streams from below—meant dealing with water. In most buildings the soldiers laid makeshift carpets of dried bracken, straw and moss over their floors. It was the best they could do, given that the forts themselves were expected to last only about ten years before the wood rotted. When forced to rebuild a fort, the soldiers would carefully demolish the older structures, salvaging any useful wood and packing turf or clay over the debris to create a level building surface.
Unbeknownst to the troops, these construction techniques created nearly ideal conditions for the 032preservation of perishable artifacts. The turf and clay that had been packed over the older forts became so compacted that neither water nor oxygen could penetrate to the debris. The result was an anaerobic layer, virtually free of the oxygen-loving bacteria that would ordinarily break down wood, leather, textiles and other organic materials. Even slivers of wood, covered with ink writing, survived.
The Romans used two very different types of wooden tablets, both of which have been found at Vindolanda. Birley’s original discovery represented the more common variety, a so-called ink-leaf tablet. At Vindolanda, soldiers made ink-leaf tablets from fine-grained alder or birch wood that had been scored and folded down the middle. Most of the tablets were no larger than postcards, although longer documents could be created by folding larger pieces of wood several times. Scribes wrote straight across the tablets, ignoring the fold line. If a tablet was to be delivered, correspondents wrote the address on the outside.
Using an ink made of carbon, gum Arabic and water, scribes could write in a more flowing hand—in the Latin cursive so rarely seen that Birley initially mistook it for Arabic. Unfortunately, these Roman scribes seem to have paid little heed to handwriting instruction. One Vindolanda author actually formed the letter “m” six different ways in the same document. The modern work of transcription was thus made painstaking and slow.
So, too, was the work of excavation. Early on, Robin Birley realized that the careful troweling of modern archaeology would destroy fragile tablets. In lieu of troweling, Vindolanda’s excavators began using spades to cut out blocks of clay, which were then broken apart by hand (foreign objects, such as the tablets, create natural cleavages in clay). This apparently primitive technique has been known to horrify archaeologically savvy observers, but it has yielded hundreds of intact tablets.
As Birley learned in 1973, the 2,000-year-old tablets immediately begin to deteriorate on being exposed to the air. Thus Vindolanda’s excavators were forced to scramble for a way to prevent further damage. Specialists from the British Museum developed a conservation process that begins immediately after identification, when the tablets are cleaned of any loose dirt and placed in a container of water. Over the next six weeks, the tablets are immersed in four successive solutions of methylated spirits, followed by two successive solutions of ether. They are then placed between sheets of glass to dry. At this point, the tablets can be cleaned in preparation for infrared photography.
But infrared photography only works with one kind of tablet found at Vindolanda, the ink-leaf tablet. A second type of writing medium—the so-called stylus tablet—did not require ink and has proven much more resistant to the technological arsenal of modern archaeology.
Somewhat thicker than the slender ink-leaf tablets, stylus tablets were hollowed out in the center so that wax could be spread in the depression.b The wax surface was then colored black, so that any text scratched by the writer would show up in the whitish color of the underlying wax. Such tablets could be erased and reused many times.
The wax itself has disappeared from most of Vindolanda’s stylus tablets. However, scholars now believe that readable texts may yet be recovered.
A multi-disciplinary team at Oxford’s Centre for the Study of Ancient Documents has begun to develop imaging techniques that might enable historians to extract readable text from the faint incisions left on the tablets by scribes who pressed too hard and made marks in the wood. The new process, called Phased Congruency Shadow Stereo, involves taking numerous pictures of the same tablet, changing only the angle of the light in each exposure. Each photograph therefore captures different shadows produced by the ridges and incisions. Computers process the images and eliminate the background “noise” caused by 033two-dimensional discolorations, palimpsest texts and wood grain. The result is a significantly enhanced image and, possibly, legible text.
Scholars anxiously await the publication of the stylus texts—and early indications are promising—but the first two volumes of ink-leaf writings have already taught historians much about the nature of the Roman army.
Rome relied primarily on foreign auxiliaries to defend the empire in northern Britain. Tungrian soldiers (from the area of modern Belgium) first built the Roman garrison at Vindolanda around 85 A.D. Batavian troops (from what is now Holland) succeeded them in the mid-90s, staying until the Tungrians returned to relieve them, sometime around 105 A.D. Both Tungrians and Batavians left behind significant numbers of tablets. These “barbarian” allies (who, only decades earlier, had fought bitterly against the empire) actually wrote letters, and they did so in a Latin that was no poorer that that found in Egypt or other parts of the Roman world.
The Tungrians and Batavians also adapted surprisingly well to their new environment. True, the author of one letter curses the Vindolanda weather, and the author of another refers to the locals as “Brittunculi” (“wretched Britons”), but on the whole the garrison seems to have made the best of things. Some soldiers sought to make a little profit on their stay:
I have several times written to you that I have bought five thousand modii of ears of grain, on account of which I need cash. Unless you send me some cash, at least five thousand denarii, the result will be that I shall lose what I have laid out as a deposit, about three hundred denarii, and I shall be embarrassed.
Others sought furloughs: “I, Messicus … ask my lord that you consider me a worthy person to grant leave at Coria.” And all seem to have spent more time improving Vindolanda’s infrastructure than in battling Britons. Several duty rosters list soldiers repairing tents, digging clay and collecting rubble, but no battle accounts survive.
Of all the soldiers who once manned Vindolanda, only one left behind a corpus of writings sufficient to reveal his personality. His name was Flavius Cerialis, and he commanded the Ninth Cohort of Batavians, around 100 A.D. Although archaeologists have discovered tablets from most periods of Vindolanda’s occupation, the majority date to Cerialis’s tenure, and, of those, most come directly from the commander’s household.
Historians have often criticized the Roman army for its reliance on untrained politicians as officers, and Cerialis’s archives provide little to refute the charge. The sentiment Cerialis penned upon arriving at his new post is characteristic: “Furnish me with friends that thanks to you I may be able to enjoy a pleasant period of military service.”
Cerialis had every intention of riding out his Vindolanda stay in style. Several of the tablets list his substantial household possessions. Others testify to the fact that he brought along servants and even family. One of Cerialis’s sons seems to have used old ink-leaf tablets for homework assignments. And Cerialis’s wife not only accompanied her husband to Vindolanda but while there maintained a lively social intercourse with the “first lady” of a neighboring fort. A birthday party invitation she received from her friend has become the most widely quoted of all the Vindolanda tablets:
On September 11th, 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 … Give my greetings to your Cerialis. My Aelius and my little son send him their greetings. I shall expect you, sister.
Cerialis hosted a few parties of his own, as well. One tablet lists the various consumables purchased for his household over several days in June. The volumes of alcohol are impressive: roughly five gallons of beer a day, supplemented by nearly equal quantities of wine. Another tablet lists a series of dinner parties held at the commander’s residence.
The living was easy in Cerialis’s army—and not just for the officer’s corps. One of the commander’s subordinates wrote him: “My fellow soldiers have no beer. Please order some to be sent.” And when reading the fragmented messages sent to Cerialis from outsiders—a New Year’s greeting, a request for advice on finding a good tavern—one cannot help but wonder if Cerialis’s “party animal” reputation had spread beyond the confines of the fort.
Thus, thanks to the Vindolanda tablets, a real personality has emerged from the ancient past, and some measure of humanity has been duly restored to a long-forgotten community of Roman soldiers.
But what, one might wonder, was learned from the very first of the tablets—the one whose discovery inspired such frantic measures? What portentous message did it contain? The text was, to say the least, brief: “I have sent you … socks from Sattua, two pairs of sandals, and two pairs of underpants”—the first known reference to Roman underwear ever found.
In March 1973 the British archaeologist Robin Birley made a puzzling discovery. He had spent years in the thick, gray clay of northern England, excavating a first-century A.D. Roman fort called Vindolanda, but he had never before encountered so many small slivers of wood. Inwardly, he even began to wonder about the possibility of an ancient woodworking shop. But when he and his assistants examined the wood more closely, they spotted tiny black marks, possibly man-made. His curiosity piqued, Birley peeled apart two thin slivers of wood that were stuck together and made the discovery of a lifetime. For […]