Writing on wood : Roman Writing-tablets

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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

Print-friendly Tablet display

Tablets guide

Classification of Writing-materials

Roman Writing-tablets

The Format of the Vindolanda Tablets

From Alan Bowman and David Thomas, Vindolanda: the Latin writing tablets London: Society for the Promotion of Roman Studies, 1983, pp. 33-35

Apart from the use of wood for such items as dipinti and mummy-tags4 it is clear that it was employed in the Mediterranean world for documents and letters from a very early date. Pliny the Elder drew attention to the implication of its use in Homer's time and this seems to be borne out in the Greek sources5. From the Roman period we have numerous examples of writing-tablets which have survived. A list of known examples was compiled by Marichal in 1950 (updated in 1955)6 and several more recent finds can be added to his lists7. Most of the surviving examples in fact come from five principal geographical areas: Southern Italy, Dacia, Egypt, Switzerland and North Africa. It will be useful to begin by discussing these groups briefly and then to add some remarks on the few examples found outside these areas.

1. Tablets from Pompeii and Herculaneum. These all predate the eruption of Vesuvius (A.D.79). There are over 200 documents, all of the stylus type - that is thick pieces of wood with recesses which will have been filled with wax and incised with a stylus (though some examples also have writing in ink). Their content, too, is remarkably homogeneous. The Pompeian tablets record the business affairs of L. Caecilius Iucundus, an auctioneer. The tablets from Herculaneum come from at least two houses and almost all record legal and monetary transactions8.

2. The province of Dacia has yielded a collection of tablets which dates to the period 131-679. All of these, with one significant exception10 are of the type written with a stylus on wax. Most of the texts, again, record legal transactions (the majority are cautiones).

3. From North Africa we have the collection known as the Tablettes Albertini which date to the fifth century A.D.11 The 45 tablets, making up 34 separate documents in all, contain legal contracts and are written in ink on thick slabs of wood12.

4. Egypt has provided a considerable number of writing-tablets with texts in Latin. These cannot be described as a collection since they come from a variety of places and range widely in date, from the first to the fourth centuries A.D. 13. Their content is varied: birth certificates, military documents and lists, documents dealing with tutela, receipts, census declarations. Like most Latin papyri, the majority of writing-tablets contain texts which are, broadly speaking, either legal or military in nature.

5. Switzerland: the site of Vindonissa preserved a group of tablets in an environment similar to that at Vindolanda14.The site itself was a legionary fortress and the tablets date to the mid-first century A.D.; they are therefore close in date to the Vindolanda texts15. Another point of comparison lies in the fact that some of the texts are clearly private letters. Also of particular importance is their format16. It is difficult to discover the true state of the collection. A handful of the texts was published in the 1920s, 1930s and 1950s and in most cases the interior text of the tablet was completely illegible, only the addresses on the outside yielding any substantial readings. The remainder of the tablets (apparently over 400 in all) include about 100 which are said to contain traces of writing17. But it seems unlikely that many will yield any more substantial texts.

6. Tablets of diverse provenance.
(i)Britain has produced a handful of tablets which may be described in somewhat greater detail18
(a)Three tablets published by Collingwood: an oath invoking the Emperor Domitian, part of a loan or purchase and a text of uncertain nature containing a reference to ships19. All these are stylus tablets and perhaps all are texts of a legal nature.
(b)Three tablets published by Richmond20. Two contained such slight traces left by the stylus on the wood that nothing could be made of them. The third, dating to the first or second century A.D., had the word Londinio on the outside, perhaps written with a bronze pen. Six lines of writing on the inner face showed the text to be a business letter concerned in part with the sale of a female slave.
(c)Three tablets belonging to the British Museum were described by R. A. Smith21Two are not said to contain writing; the third has an inscription burnt into it.
(d)A list of tablets owned by the British Museum which was drawn up in 1966-7 includes another tablet found in Britain but it is not said to contain any writing22
(e)The City of Birmingham Museum possesses two writing-tablets, both of the stylus type, which were originally found in London (Walbrook)23. Both have traces of incised writing.
(f)In 1956 a writing-tablet was discovered in a well in a villa in Somerset24. It is made of larch and is of the stylus type but its text is written in ink. The handwriting suggests a date in the third century and the content, a sale of a piece of real estate, is again legal.
(g)Another tablet from London was published in 196025. It too was written in ink and the palaeographical and archaeological evidence points to a date late in the first century, thus making it roughly contemporary with the Vindolanda documents. Other points of comparison are the fact that it contains a private letter and its unusual format (Vol. I Ch. 2).
(h)Fragments of wooden writing-tablets, some containing traces said to be of 'inscribed' writing, were found in a hoard of various objects stored in a wooden chest at Corbridge26.
(1)The Museum of London possesses a few fragmentary tablets which are compara-ble to the leaf tablets from Vindolanda and contain traces of writing27.
(j)One or two tablets of the stylus type have been excavated in the London borough of Southwark28.
(k)Recently a few tablets were discovered in a gravel-pit at Lechlade (Gloucs.). These are of interest because they are comparable to the leaf tablets from Vindolanda and are written in ink29.
(1)A small number of similar tablets was found at Ribchester but we have no information whether or not they contain any writing30.
(m)Recent excavations at Carlisle have unearthed about a dozen tablets, most of the stylus type but in one or two cases bearing writing in ink31.
(ii)A handful of examples from other areas in Europe deserves brief notice.
(a)A stylus tablet recording the sale of an ox, found in Holland (Franeker) 32.
(b)A stylus tablet from Rottweil, containing an official letter of Flavian date, perhaps concerning the taxation of the agri decumates33.
(c)Two fragments of stylus tablets from Cologne; a list of names and a letter concerning a payment34.
(d)A stylus tablet from Valkenburg with an address on the outside35.
(e)12 stylus tablets (4 triptychs) from France (Saintes) 36.
(f)About 24 fragments of stylus tablets from Valkenburg37.
(g)A number of stylus tablets from Cologne with traces of incised writing38.

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