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Cache of Roman Messages Found Near Hadrian’s Wall

The 25 well-preserved wooden tablets include a soldier’s request for time off

One of the tablets found at the fort (Vindolanda Charitable Trust)
smithsonian.com

At the end of the first century A.D., Roman soldiers stationed at Vindolanda, a Fort along Hadrian’s wall in the United Kingdom, jotted notes on wafer-thin pieces of wood—requests for beer, descriptions of cold feet, birthday invites and more. Now, nearly two millennia later, archeologists have uncovered a cache of 25 of these exceptionally well-preserved wooden tablets, reports Maev Kennedy for The Guardian. This rare find gives us a peek into daily life at a remote Roman outpost.

Written in ink, each of the wooden tablets are wafer thin but about the size of a post card. The latest group of messages were unearthed at the end of June—carefully extracted from a layer of dirt and organic waste poured as the foundation for a new building, reports Tia Ghose for LiveScience. They were likely read and then disposed of along with the trash, she writes. It is the first stash of written notes found at the site since 1992.

Such ancient notes usually can only be read using infrared photography, says Robin Birley, a researcher who made other tablet discoveries at the site during the 70's and 80's. But many of the notes are stuck together, which may protect much of the ink. The soil conditions also assisted with the find, writes Ghose: the oxygen-free (anaerobic) conditions of the site may have prevented bacteria from breaking down the artifacts overtime.

One note that has already been translated is a request from a soldier called Masculus asking his commander for leave. Masculus appears in a previous tablet found at the site asking for more beer to be sent to his outpost.

“What an incredible day, truly exceptional. You can never take these things for granted as the anaerobic conditions needed for their survival are very precise,” Andrew Birley, CEO of the Vindolanda Trust and Director of Excavations says in the release.

As Kennedy reports, most of the messages are written on birch wood. But one currently illegible note is getting more attention: it was written on two pieces of oak folded together. Birch was plentiful at the time, so the use of oak suggests this was a more significant correspondence.

"The oak one is very exciting, but completely illegible at the moment as the oak blackens over the centuries and the ink fades, but we hope the text will pop back up under infrared light," Birley tells Kennedy.

Construction on Hadrian’s Wall began in 122 A.D. It spanned 73 miles and stretched from coast to coast at Britain’s narrowest point. The wall included a guarded gates every mile and 14 manned forts, like Vindolanda, to protect Roman Britain to the south from the so-called “barbarian” tribes living north of the wall.

Researchers began recovering tablets from the Vindolanda site in the 1970s and have since amassed hundreds of messages that include 400 named people. In total, they give a portrait of a multi-national community of people from all classes—hailing from Spain, Belgium and the Netherlands—all working to protect the edge of the Roman Empire, reports Ghose.

"We hope to learn much more about day-to-day life in Vindolandaand possibly more about characters who are already familiar to us.” Birley tells Kennedy.

About Jason Daley

Jason Daley is a Madison, Wisconsin-based writer specializing in natural history, science, travel, and the environment. His work has appeared in Discover, Popular Science, Outside, Men’s Journal, and other magazines.

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