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The use and formats of writing tablets

Vindolanda and its setting

History

Forts and military life

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Writing tablets - forms and technology

Writing instruments and equipment

The use and formats of writing tablets

Other documents at Vindolanda

Clerks, Latin and education

Reading the tablets

about this exhibition

A complete stylus tablet, lit from a low angle to reveal faint traces of writing, clearest towards the bottom of the tablet

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A complete stylus tablet, lit from a low angle to reveal faint traces of writing, clearest towards the bottom of the tablet

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© CSAD

Stylus tablets and leaf tablets were generally put to different uses. Most surviving stylus tablets are business and legal documents, accounts, contracts, affidavits and receipts, although they could be used for school exercises and letters. When used as legal documents, two versions of the same text were written in a booklet of two or three tablets. One version of the text was written on the inner sides, the other on the outer. The booklet was tied and sealed by witness seals laid in a strip. If it was suspected that the outer, unsealed copy of the text had been tampered with, it could be checked against the protected text. Ink labelling on the rim of some stylus tablets indicates that they may have been stored in a filing system.

Ink tablets were put to more ephemeral uses. Most leaf tablets from Vindolanda fall into three categories, accounts and lists, reports and letters, both drafts and originals. There are also a small number of other texts, including writing exercises and shorthand documents.

The typical format of an account, with commodities on one side and prices and amounts on the other (192)

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The typical format of an account, with commodities on one side and prices and amounts on the other (192)

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© CSAD

The format of the principal types of document followed the same broad conventions. Most accounts were written in narrow columns, parallel to the short edges of the leaf, with items on the left-hand side and amounts and/or prices on the right. In some cases several leaves were joined in a concertina format. Such a notebook is probably denoted by the Latin word pugillaria. Letters share a common format, being written in two columns parallel to the broad edges of the leaf, the left-hand column often being wider.

Writing a letter

Ink tablet - diptych (310)

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caption

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© CSAD

The letters are perhaps the most interesting of the documents, as they allow the voices of individuals to be heard most clearly. To begin the letter the named sender (in the third person) greets the recipient, the salutation taking up the first two lines (e.g. 'Severus to his Candidus, greetings' (Severus Candido suo salutem) (301). Letters are not dated, although dates are sometimes included in relation to instructions in the letter. For example 242 instructs the recipient to 'come to Vindolanda tomorrow', where the date seems to be supplied. News of the sender's health or wishes for the well-being of the recipient often follow the opening, although in one intriguing instance the sender wishes the recipient the worst of fortune (321). The letters close by bidding farewell (uale), (often 'farewell lord', domine, or 'farewell brother', frater) and sometimes again wishing good health. A typical closure is:
'I pray that you are enjoying the best of fortune and are in good health' (opto te felicissimum bene ualere) (250). The use of 'brother' expresses affection and need not signify a fraternal relationship. Greetings are often passed to other mutual friends and acquaintances, to current and former messmates. In a more elaborate signing-off Claudia Severa addresses Lepidina as 'my sister, my dearest and most longed-for soul' (soror karissima et anima ma (sc. mea) desideratissima) (291). In this case and several others cases the closure is in a different hand from the body of the text, indicating that a scribe has written the majority of the letter. Claudia's handwriting is rather poorer than the scribe's, although her Latin is very good.

Once complete the letter is scored down the middle, folded and the address written on the back of the right-hand half (See Reading the tablets: Scripts at Vindolanda). Several leaves have matched notches cut in the left and right hand edges, which probably served as anchors for binding strings to tie round the letters. Tie holes also served the same purpose.

Other formats were possible. One letter began on the right half of a diptych, perhaps written by a left-hander who wanted to avoid smudging (343). Part of one letter is not split into columns but spans the whole diptych (292). Left short of space, some writers finish their texts in the margin (302) or on the back (305).

Addresses on letters specify the name (sometimes also rank and the unit) of the individual to whom the letter is sent. Often the name of the sender is also supplied, below the addressee, in the form 'from….'. In a minority of instances the place to which to send the letter is also written. Those letters at Vindolanda which name other places in the address, for example London, York, Catterick or Corbridge, must have been brought by their recipients with them to Vindolanda. In the relatively small societies of Roman forts, usually numbering no more than a few hundred, a name and sometimes an indication of the unit must have been enough to indicate the recipient.

A full-size reconstruction of a passenger carriage, Römisch-Germanisches Museum, Cologne

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A full-size reconstruction of a passenger carriage, Römisch-Germanisches Museum, Cologne

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Vroma: photo Barbara McManus, Römisch-Germanisches Museum, Cologne

Military correspondence was carried by soldiers acting as couriers (252), other official letters as well as individuals on official business by the imperial 'postal service', the cursus publicus. Messengers and travellers on imperial business were issued with vouchers that permitted them accommodation at hostels (mansiones) and changes of animals at stations (mutationes) en route. For their own letters rich individuals might maintain their own courier, but most people depended on travellers going in the right direction. That such a system could work over great distances is shown by the many surviving letters from Egypt that were dispatched from Greece and Italy. Individuals on the move, for example soldiers going on leave or to other postings and carriers moving supplies could have conveyed the personal letters between lower-ranking soldiers.

On good roads in Italy messengers in a vehicle, supported by changes of animals, could achieve speeds between 50 and 80 miles a day, messengers on horse back rather more. Such figures may be optimistic in northern Britain, but messages could have been sent to Corbridge and possibly Carlisle and a reply received within a day. A message could have reached York within two days, London within a week, the Vindolanda regiments' homelands in northern Gaul in two.

Many letters refer to an exchange of correspondence: sometimes complex transactions depended on the rapid exchange of information. The business letter from Octavius to Candidus mentions receiving or sending letters several times, but also indicates that sometimes communications could break down (343).

'... I have several times written to you that I have bought about five thousand modii of ears of grain, on account of which I need cash. Unless you send me some cash, at least five hundred 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…'

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