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Britains earliest handwritten documents, ’email of the Roman world’ uncovered during london dig

Ian Harvey

At an archaeological dig in London, among hundreds of Roman waxed writing tablets, the earliest handwritten documents ever found in Britain were discovered.

The artifacts were found during excavations for Bloomberg’s new European headquarters near Mansion House in the City of London. The wooden tablets have been described as “the Email of the Roman world” by experts, and they often were used to communicate business and legal dealings.

In total, the tablets number 410. Of those, eighty-seven have been deciphered, including one addressed, “In London, to Mogontius.” That particular tablet is dated to 65-80 AD, making it the earliest reference to London known so far. The Roman historian Tacitus would also reference London, but fifty years later. The tablet is currently being held at the Museum of London.

The earliest dated handwritten document is a financial record of money owed. The date listed on the document is January 8th, 57 AD — this is within the first decade of Roman rule in Britain. In laymen’s terms, it is the earliest IOU ever found.

Sophie Jackson is not only an archeologist, but she is also the director at the independent charitable company Museum of London Archeology (MOLA). MOLA is leading the dig, and Jackson has said that they had high hopes for other discoveries to be made at the site. So far, she said, the findings have “far exceeded all expectations.”

“The tablets are hugely significant, they are the largest single assemblage of wax writing tablets found in Britain and what’s particularly special about them is they are so early.” Jackson explained, “It’s the first generation of Londoners speaking to us.”

The tablets, and other artifacts such as wicker baskets and leather, were preserved by the lack of oxygen in the thick mud on the banks of the Walbrook River. This river once dominated the area in Roman times; now, it is one of London’s many lost, dried, rivers.

Researchers said that the tablets, many of which had been broken into fragments by time, had ended up in soil that Romans used as landfill in order to control the Walbrook. Coins, pottery, and wood were also found at the site; these are particularly helpful because some items had the date of their creation.

The tablets, according to experts, had been used much like a letter. The rectangular tablets had recesses in them. These recesses were then filled with blackened beeswax, and a writer could write in the wax with a stylus. The wax did not survive the centuries, but the marks that the writers made in the wood have. This means that some of the messages survive to be read today.

Interestingly, the handwriting appears to be quite different to the standard Roman alphabet. Researchers had to use a process similar to code-breaking in order to decipher many of the messages.

One tablet was a contract from October 21, 62 AD, and it detailed twenty loads of provisions that came from Verulamium, known today as St. Albans, in Hertfordshire, to London just a year after the revolt led by the Iceni queen Boudica.

The person who deciphered the tablets was Roger Tomlin, who is an Oxford University classicist and cursive Latin expert. He said that the recovery of that contract was important because it reveals the rapid recovery of Roman London and Verulamium after they were destroyed in the Boudican revolt.

Dr. Tomlin also told reporters that the tablets included references to beer deliveries, evidence of an early beer baron whose empire stretched from London to Carlisle, legal rulings, references to the military presence in the city, and even someone practicing handwriting.

There is also a begging letter asking “by bread and salt” for a return of a favor, in the form of the payment as soon as possible of 26 denarii, and a warning that “they [the writer] are boasting through the whole market that you [the recipient] have lent them money.”

Such documents, Dr. Tomlin noted, showed the business activities of the “carpet-bagging community” of early London. “It was the new wild west frontier of the Roman Empire, with people streaming in behind the Roman army and exploiting the new province,” he said. “I am so lucky to be the first to read them again, after more than 19 centuries, and to imagine what these people were like, who founded the new city of London.”

More than 700 artifacts have been recovered at the site. After they were uncovered, the tablets were kept in water before undergoing careful cleaning. They were then treated with a waxy substance to replace some of the water content and freeze-dried to ensure preservation. Many of the artifacts will eventually go on display next year in an exhibition space in the completed Bloomberg building.

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