Institute of Archaeology


RAC/TRAC Session 8: Contextualising 50 years of the Vindolanda Writing Tablets

Details of the RAC/TRAC Conference session 'Contextualising 50 years of the Vindolanda Writing Tablets.'

Conference Sessions and Abstracts - Friday 12 April 2024

8.  Contextualising 50 years of the Vindolanda Writing Tablets - the ultimate small finds from Roman Britain?

Richard Hobbs – British Museum
Andrew Birley – Vindolanda Trust

Since their discovery on a cold March morning in 1973, the Vindolanda writing tablets have illuminated Roman Britain’s lighter and darker sides and provided a very visceral insight into life, particularly the army’s, in Rome’s most northerly province. From the tablets discovered in 1973 to those still being discovered in 2023, each tablet has the potential to challenge or re-shape our appreciation of life on the frontier of the Roman Empire. To introduce us to a character who would otherwise be forever forgotten or reacquaint us with another who we would like to know more about. Although the texts are individually impressive, what is less understood is that each is an artefact it its own right, one which is far better contextualised by the spaces and surrounding materials in which it was found. This session will welcome contributions from a broad range of researchers who are currently working on materials or artefacts and spaces which are connected to the archaeology of the Vindolanda Writing tablets, as well as the tablet texts themselves. The session will also explore the state of the preservation environments in which these discoveries have been made and assess the impact of climate change on the potential for future discoveries or writing tablets at sites like Vindolanda.

Session schedule 

Friday 12 April (PM)              Room 1 - Elvin (Level 1)
14:10Writing materials and literacy in their physical and social context (Alan Bowman)
14:30Text, Tablets and Technology: New evidence for slavery at Vindolanda (Alexander Meyer, Alex Mullen & Roger Tomlin)
14:50An object-based approach to the Vindolanda stylus tablets (Anna Willi)
15:10The only thing that gets better with age: Understanding the economy of leather from the Vindolanda tablets (Beth Greene)
15:30                                               BREAK
16:00Contextualising the adjective corticeus – a functional woollen textile dye in the Roman provincial wardrobes (Judit Pásztókai-Szeőke & Ivan Radman-Livaja)
16:20Making History: a scientific insight into the writing of the Vindolanda tablets (Caroline Cartwright, Richard Hobbs & Giovanna Vasco)
16:40The uncomfortable truth: The impact of climate change on the preservation landscape of the Vindolanda Tablets (Andrew Birley & Gillian Taylor)


 Writing materials and literacy in their physical and social context
Alan Bowman – University of Oxford

This paper emphasises the unique contribution made by the small finds at Vindolanda to our knowledge of writing materials, documentary practices and literacy in the first century AD. The harvest of masses of ink-written texts on thin wooden leaves, locally manufactured, opens a new perspective on everyday writing both at Vindolanda itself and the places from which letters were sent to Vindolanda. The writing practices demonstrate the flexibility with which the materials were used for documents and letters. The content and the variety of identifiable individual hands, the range of subject-matter and the linguistic features of the texts afford a unique insight into the character and extent of literacy in the resident community of soldiers and civilians in the praetorium and barracks of the fort and its environs in the period between about AD 90 and 130 and also have a very much wider impact on our appreciation of the literate environment in the Roman empire as a whole. This will be illustrated by a handful of individual examples which attest new and, in some cases, very surprising phenomena.

 Text, Tablets and Technology: New evidence for slavery at Vindolanda 
Alexander Meyer – Western University    
Alex Mullen – University of Nottingham     
Roger Tomlin – University of Oxford

In addition to the famous ink tablets from Vindolanda, approximately 350 stylus tablets have been discovered. Yet, while nearly 900 ink tablets have been published, only a handful of stylus tablets have been treated in detail. This paper will present the first results of a new effort to publish the stylus tablets from Vindolanda, which are being read assisted by a range of developing digital techniques. The tablet presented here is a fragmentary text of a bill-of-sale for an enslaved person. Much of the text can be restored based on comparable material, most notably a similar document discovered in excavations at 1 Poultry in London (Tomlin 2003). The significance of the Vindolanda text is further examined in the broader archaeological context of Vindolanda and of other writing tablets. The text of the tablet and its context highlight the importance of recognizing and understanding the diverse circumstances of enslaved people in the military communities of the northern frontier.

 An object-based approach to the Vindolanda stylus tablets
Anna Willi – University of Nottingham

In addition to the famous leaf tablets, over 340 stylus tablets have been found at Vindolanda to this date. Stylus tablets are more commonly found than leaf tablets, with hundreds of finds known from other contexts with favourable soil conditions, for example from London, Vindonissa, or Cologne. Research has traditionally focused on the deciphering of the stylus inscriptions preserved on such tablets, while less attention has been given to the tablets as everyday objects, meaning that we do not yet have a good general understanding of how this versatile medium was used. The paper will take an object-based approach to the stylus tablets from Vindolanda, focusing on their morphology. By considering the tablets’ design, the practicalities involved in using and reusing them, and the purposes they served, it will explore what they can tell us about the options available to and the choices made, and habits displayed by those who used this medium in their everyday lives at Vindolanda. By contextualizing this ‘tabula-habit’ with other sites in the north-western provinces, including non-military contexts, the paper will further explore the factors that may have shaped the use of stylus tablets on the northern frontier and how the tablets from Vindolanda can contribute to our general understanding of this medium, providing new insights into the significance of the site for research on Roman everyday writing.

 The only thing that gets better with age: Understanding the economy of leather from the Vindolanda tablets 
Beth Greene – Western University

Leather is the material of the ancient world. Most things that today are manufactured with polyester, plastics, gortex, and cotton, relied upon leather in antiquity. It was critical to keep warm as clothing and as shelter, it was used to transport goods, was a regular part of military equipment, and it was the very thing that protected one’s feet through long marches and cold winters. The site of Vindolanda has played a major role in our understanding of leather objects in the Roman period. Because it is one of the few sites where we can investigate the very objects themselves, they have naturally become the focus of most work. However, the Vindolanda writing tablets are also a rich source of information for understanding the economy of leather and footwear in a Roman fort. This paper illuminates the rich source of information found in the tablets to enhance our understanding of the leather objects themselves and the economy of leather production at the fort. Using both the direct information provided and the inferences possible from the texts, the tablets offer another rare glimpse of a part of life in antiquity otherwise erased on most archaeological sites.  

 Contextualising the adjective corticeus – a functional woollen textile dye in the Roman provincial wardrobes
Judit Pásztókai-Szeőke        
Ivan Radman-Livaja – Arheološki muzej u Zagrebu

Vindolanda Writing Tablets and Pannonian commercial lead tags (e.g. from Siscia, Savaria and Carnuntum) are very unique in their own right: both are textual evidence found in archaeological context providing us with valuable insight into the local life. While the texts on those tags indicate their use as ID-tags in cloth refurbishing workshops, this interpretation is further corroborated by other archaeological finds in Siscia and Savaria. This paper explores the valuable insight into the local provincial wardrobe on the frontier of the Empire provided both by the tablets and the tags. In this case, the connection between the British and the Pannonian textual evidence is the adjective corticius/corticeus, first seen on the tablets and later well-attested also on several Pannonian tags. A range of interpretations understanding the meaning of this adjective has been suggested: as made from tree-bark; (leather) tanned by bark or more recently as bark-coloured (garment).  The present paper would suggest another possibility: corticeus might not only refer to a certain brown hue, but might designate as well a functional, protective or even prophylactic textile dye for outdoor garments.

 Making History: a scientific insight into the writing of the Vindolanda tablets
Caroline Cartwright – British Museum    
Richard Hobbs – British Museum       
Giovanna Vasco – British Museum

After the discovery of the first writing tablets in 1973, the focus of research naturally turned to the contents of the letters, developing methods of photography which allowed the ink writing to be deciphered. Little attention in the intervening decades has been paid to how the tablets were actually made, a question which the ‘Making History’ project, based at the British Museum and supported by Augmentum, addresses. What types of wood were used to make the tablets? Were they native species or species exclusive to other parts of the Roman Empire? If the latter, how did they get to Vindolanda? Were there differences in the selection of woods used for ink writing tablets compared with stylus tablets? Were any tablets made from recycled woods, originally used to make other objects, e.g. storage barrels, or was pristine wood usually preferred? The inks used on the writing tablets are also being studied, focusing particularly on the possible differentiation of the ink sources. Thanks to the application of complementary scientific techniques, it has been possible to develop an analytical methodology that not only allows the documentation of the ink writing from the palaeographic and conservation points of view, but also ways of characterising their manufacture. Undoubtedly, the main achievement is the possibility of differentiating the sources of carbon-based inks. The paper will demonstrate possible connections between individual scribes and specific raw materials and consider the social role of the scribe and the possible materials available to them at Vindolanda.

 The uncomfortable truth: The impact of climate change on the preservation landscape of the Vindolanda Tablets
Andrew Birley – Vindolanda Trust            
Gillian Taylor – Teeside University

The writing tablets discovered at Vindolanda provide a unique window and perspective into a life and time which cannot be gained from any other source. The discoveries have come from a fragile and finite resource of anaerobically preserved deposits which have remained stable for almost two millennia. Unfortunately, over the past five years the archaeologists at Vindolanda have started to witness rapid changes taking place within the buried preservation environments which questions the future survival of the anaerobic layers at the site and potential for the recovery of many more letters. The most recent excavations have uncovered the rapid decaying remains of the last timber forts, with shrinking posts, the loss of textiles, insects, and the degradation in the condition of leather artefacts like shoes and tent leather. Each of these are warning signs that the resilience of the anaerobic layers at the site have reached or exceeded their limits in coping with climatic changes. The Vindolanda Trusts response has been to commission a series of deep probes which in now uses to constantly monitor the health of the buried archaeology. They measure pH, the Oxygen Reducing Potential, temperature, and soil moisture and link those measurements to data obtained from a site weather station to establish how strongly the changing climate and the rapid loss of anaerobic layers may be bonded. The data from the probes has revealed a deeply uncomfortable truth. The climate above the site is having a direct impact on the preservation landscape below the ground and what was once considered safe is no-longer the case. This makes the historic recovery of ink and stylus tablets from Vindolanda, and the host of other environmentally preserved artefacts, even more important than before as a preserved site archive. Because in the coming decades there can no-longer be a guarantee that such artefacts will continue to survive to be found.