The normal writing material used throughout the Roman Empire was the wooden writing tablet. A shallow recess was cut in a wooden board, leaving a border like a picture frame. The recess was filled with wax on which you could write with a sharp pointed stylus. Examples have been dug up in different parts of the Roman world, including London, where unusual soil conditions have prevented the wood from rotting.

Over the past 30 years another type of wooden tablet has come to light. This is a very thin slat, like a piece of veneer; letters were incised on it with a sharp point and the slat folded in half, vertically. Then it was secured by a cord running through a v-shaped slot at each edge and tied. Scores of these slats, dating from about 100 A.D., have been unearthed at Vindolanda, a fort on the frontier between Britain and Scotland where Hadrian’s Wall was later erected. All ranks in the army wrote on the slats, from the garrison commander to infantrymen and slaves.

Perhaps the most famous letter found at Vindolanda is a birthday invitation from Claudia Severa, the wife of the commander of Briga, a nearby fort, to Sulpicia Lepidina, wife of Vindolanda’s commander. Claudia Severa’s warm, informal tone, and the personal nature of her message, lend support to the theory that writing was part of everyday life:

Claudia Severa to her Lepidina, greetings. On the third day before the Ides of 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…Give my greetings to your Cerialis. My Aelius and my little son send him(?) their greetings. I shall expect you, sister. Farewell, sister, my dearest soul, as I hope to prosper, and hail.

At other sites in Europe, additional examples of writing slats have been found, so it seems they were as common as the wooden tablets. They are so thin and fragile that archaeologists may not always have recognized them. One such slat was found with the Bar-Kokhba manuscripts. Therefore we may assume that they were in use in Palestine in Jesus’ lifetime.

To learn more about writing in the ancient world, see A.K. Bowman, Life and Letters on the Roman Frontier: Vindolanda and Its People (London: British Museum Press, 1994).