As well as wooden tablets a range of other media were used for
portable documents in the Roman empire. Perhaps the most familiar
writing material is papyrus. Far more papyri have survived than
any other category of document: they have been found in their hundreds
of thousands in Egypt and the eastern Mediterranean. Another form
of portable document was the ostrakon (plural ostraka),
substantial fragments of pots which were re-used for writing in
ink. Ostraka too have been documented in large numbers: for example
excavations in the 1980s and 1990s of a Roman quarry in the Egypt's
Eastern Desert have recovered over 10,000. While ostraka and papyri
were used in the north-western provinces, it was assumed until the
discovery of the Vindolanda ink tablets that wooden tablets written
with a stylus were the commonest type of portable document. The
discovery of ink 'leaf tablets' at Vindolanda was an enormous surprise
to scholars of the Roman world. Where ink tablets were first invented
and used is not clear. The earliest examples are from Vindolanda
and Carlisle, where they were already a well-established technology.
Whatever their origins, it is likely that they were the most widely
used type of portable, everyday document in the north-western provinces
and perhaps beyond.
The pages in this section discuss the form writing tablets took
and the tools of writing, as well as illustrating some of the other
types of written document that survive from the Roman world. The
uses to which the leaf and stylus tablets were put are explored.
Who wrote and read the Vindolanda documents and how they might have
learned Latin are investigated.
Tablet database link: Browse the tablets by type of document (e.g. letter or account).