Archaeology and Conservation : Excavation, Conservation and Photography

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Tab. Vindol. II Introductory chapters

Tab. Vindol. II Category introductions

Tab. Vindol. II Abbreviations and Bibliography

Digitising Vindolanda

Tab. Vindol. II Addenda and Corrigenda

Tab. Vindol. I Introductory Chapters

Archaeology and Conservation

Writing on wood

The Content and its Significance

Palaeography

Language

List of abbreviations

The print publication and the online edition

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Tablets guide

The Discovery of the Writing-Tablets and the Archaelogical Context

Excavation, Conservation and Photography

Technical Analysis

Manufacture of Tablets and General Conclusions

From Alan Bowman and David Thomas, Vindolanda: the Latin writing tablets London: Society for the Promotion of Roman Studies, 1983, pp. 24-26

The great depth at which the tablets lay and the extremely waterlogged conditions which obtained in the deep sections were not the only difficulties encountered in excavating the writing-tablets. The bracken flooring was heavily compacted, matted and tangled and could not easily be dissected in situ. Trowelling was not a suitable technique for such delicate objects and it was therefore found more convenient to cut the flooring in sections, like peat, and then to dissect each section individually, carefully extracting the tablets from the organic matter which clung to them 21. The compaction of the flooring in antiquity probably caused some fractures in the tablets. The process of extraction will have increased the amount of fragmentation, but there is no reason to believe that any material has been lost. We should not necessarily assume that every piece was complete when it was thrown on to the dump. Excavation-techniques did improve during the course of the 1973-5 seasons, to the extent that it later proved possible to attempt recovery of the tablets in situ. If there are yet more tablets in the ground, the methods so far used should prove equally effective in recovering them.

The conservation process which has been developed to deal with the tablets is also a considerable achievement. In the case of papyri, which are preserved in dry conditions, deterioration of the fibre and fading of the writing occurs, if at all, only over a very considerable period of time. This is not true of the writing-tablets which have survived in damp, anaerobic conditions. There is a marked tendency for the writing to fade on exposure to the air and for the wood to disintegrate, though this is not uniform (we do not know why). Although stylus tablets have been successfully conserved22, we do not know of any successful attempt with objects as thin and as fragile as the Vindolanda tablets. There are, of course, very few similar tablets (cross -reference, Vol. I, Ch. 2 but the writing on the comparable example found in the City of London did not survive the attempts to preserve it23. It is therefore a notable achievement on the part of the staff of the British Museums Research Laboratory that a process was developed to conserve the tablets which involved very little or no shrinkage (a maximum of about 5 per cent) and no loss of visible writing on those fragments where it survived24. The process is a simple one which involves prolonged soaking of the tablets alternately in baths of ether and methyl alcohol. It may now be regarded as a standard procedure for such objects. All of the finds from the seasons 1973-5 have now been processed in this manner with no observable deterioration, although when the tablets are dry they become quite brittle and lighter in weight. In most cases the cleaning process which had taken place prior to conservation had removed the adhering dirt, but even after conservation it was possible to remove any remaining debris, if necessary, by careful use of a fine point (e.g. a needle) and a soft brush. Any danger of scraping away the surface could be lessened by using a microscope (10x magnification was normally sufficient).

The visibility of ink writing on some of the tablets suggested, by analogy with papyri, that (even in those cases where the ink had subsequently faded) infra-red photography might succeed in rendering it visible again. This technique did prove successful in many cases and the photographs were generally sufficiently good for transcriptions to be made without recourse to the original tablets except for the purposes of checking for odd bits of dirt, or pitting, which could look like ink on the photographs25. Even so, some problems still remain unsolved. (1) Those cases in which the ink has faded so badly that even the infra-red film could recapture only faint traces; there seems to be nothing we can do about these. (2) The scratches on the stylus tablets are, of course, not susceptible to infra-red; with these it is merely a case of adjusting the lighting to achieve the best possible relief. (3) There were several pieces of which the photographs did not show a clear differentiation between the writing and the background; the writing appeared fuzzy and it was suspected that the infra-red radiation was not being adequately reflected by the wood (in contrast to the absorptive qualities of the ink)26; in some of these cases further significant progress was made by using ultra-violet light with the infra-red film and a Kodak Wratten 87 filter27.

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