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Palaeography: An Introduction

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Tab. Vindol. II Introductory chapters

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Tab. Vindol. II Abbreviations and Bibliography

Digitising Vindolanda

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Archaeology and Conservation

Writing on wood

The Content and its Significance



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An Introduction

The Script

The Palaeographical Background

Analysis of the Letter-forms

Capital and Address script

Abbreviation and Punctuation


From Alan Bowman and David Thomas, Vindolanda: the Latin writing tablets London: Society for the Promotion of Roman Studies, 1983, pp. 51-53

Whatever the value of the Vindolanda tablets in other fields, we can be confident of their very considerable importance for the history of Latin writing - an importance, indeed, which it would be hard to overemphasise. The discovery of a sizeable body of written material from the period around A. D.100 is remarkable enough in itself, but the value of the material for the palaeographer is enhanced, in the present instance, by a number of factors. By far the most important of these is the fact that the tablets are written in ink, as opposed to being incised1. The great significance of this will be clearer if we glance briefly at the range of material, written or incised, which has survived from the period of the early Empire.

The most widespread survival is of stone monuments. These are inscribed, and use a capital form of script. Palaeographers no longer disregard such material as being of no interest for the development of handwriting2 but its value for such a study, especially for the development of early Latin handwriting into the handwriting used in mediaeval books, is obviously severely limited. The same is true, though to a lesser extent, of all inscribed material, whether it be on lead, bronze, or wax tablets, including the graffiti found on stone or pottery. Important work is now being done on the 'writing' used on such materials3, and it is certainly something which the palaeographer cannot afford to neglect, especially as the 'writers' (unlike the carvers of monumental stone inscriptions) will have tended to use the same letter-forms as those currently being employed for handwriting in ink. Up to the present we have had to be content almost exclusively with such material for the first three centuries A.D. from the western part of the Empire, i. e the Latin-speaking part. The only examples of ink writing from these areas have been the few instances of writing on walls at Pompeii (perhaps more accurately described as painting), a handful of wooden tablets which we have listed and described above (p. 36) and a collection of ostraka from Bu Njem in North Africa dating from the early third century4. The only substantial body of ink writing which has survived from the first three centuries A.D. has been the papyri found, and for the most part written, in Egypt, together with the papyri from Dura-Europos on the Eastern frontier5. Although only a few hundred papyri in Latin have survived, compared to the tens of thousands in Greek, and these are for the most part documents originating in military circles, it is, nevertheless, to this body of material that we must turn for the only collection of early Latin writing which is large enough to provide us with sufficient palaeographical material to be studied in comparison with the writing of the Vindolanda tablets6.

From what has been said, one feature which enhances the importance for the palaeographer of the tablets from Vindolanda will at once be apparent: these tablets come from the north-western frontier of the Empire and thus from the opposite extreme to the papyri from Egypt and Dura-Europos. Admittedly only a few of the tablets will actually have been written at Vindolanda7, but the remainder are hardly likely, we think, to have travelled far, and we may fairly take the find as exemplifying the type of writing in use in Britain at this period. We thus have now for the first time a not inconsiderable body of written material from a part of the Empire from which hitherto virtually no such material had come to light. This is of particular importance for the question of the extent to which Latin writing was standard throughout the Empire. When our written material came almost entirely from the Eastern provinces, it was always possible to argue that the evidence it presented might be giving us a very one-sided picture and might not accurately represent the manner in which Latin was written in the Western provinces.

Another fact which enhances the value of the find is the survival of such a rich variety of handwriting. Almost all the tablets listed below are in their own distinct hands. Of the many fragments originally inventoried under different numbers only a few could be directly joined and this was normally made possible not merely by the identity of the hands but also by the content of the text and the physical shape of the fragments. There may remain a very small number of fragments which belong with other pieces (e.g. those which may be written by the hand which wrote No. 37 (225), see introductory comments); but apart from these it is safe to say that there are no two separate tablets in which we could confidently identify the hand as one and the same. Even in the case of Nos. 21 (248) and 30 (295), where the hands look to be superficially very similar, we cannnot be sure that they are the work of the same writer (see No. 30 (295), introductory comments). Since almost all tablets with any legible writing are of some value for palaeographical purposes and since some tablets are written by more than one hand (e.g. Nos. 21 (248) and 30 (295)), we have in the collection as a whole examples of the hands of about eighty different writers, every one of whom was writing contemporaneously.

This point needs further elaboration, since the fact that all the tablets must have been written at much the same time and can be dated with some precision is very important in assessing their palaeographical value. The dating of the writing-tablets has already been discussed8; the area in which the tablets were found is so stratified that the archaeologists could place the particular layers within a very limited period, often as short as ten years. The extreme limits for the leaf tablets are ca. A.D. 95-115 (with the exception of No. 99 (566), which contains only illegible traces). Of course, such a date can only serve as a terminus ante quem and in theory the tablets could well have been written before this time. However, we find it very hard to believe that writing on such ephemeral material can have predated by very long the time at which it was discarded, and we are confident in asserting that the tablets were written either in the first decade or so of the second century or, at the earliest, in the last few years of the first. As we shall see (Section C of this chapter), it is agreed by all scholars that the most important years for the marked change in Latin handwriting from that of the first three centuries A.D. to that in use from the fourth century onwards lie within the third century. The Vindolanda tablets are thus too early to bear on this question directly. They are, however, of interest for a related change in Latin writing, namely the shift in the angle of writing, to which, as we shall see (Vol. I Ch. 4), Mallon has assigned a fundamental importance in the development of Latin script. He dates this change to the early part of the second century, i.e. the period to which the Vindolanda tablets belong. Furthermore, in the most careful study of Latin papyri of the first three centuries yet published, Cencetti has claimed to detect an important change in Latin handwriting during the second century, with its earliest examples dating from the same period as the Vindolanda tablets9. We shall return to these points in Sections C and G.

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