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Palaeography: The Script

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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



List of abbreviations

The print publication and the online edition

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Tablets guide

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. 53-55

Palaeographers tend to divide Latin handwriting into two broad categories - bookhands used for literary works and cursive hands used for documents. Marichal's description may be taken as typical of the difference between these two categories as it is usually seen by palaeographers. Of bookhands he says: '1'emploi d'un calame souple et large est le trait commun de toutes les écritures 'livresques' (libraria)'; whereas of cursive writing he says: 'le calame 'dur', qui est aussi en general un calame a bec étroit, est, par excellence, celui des documents, des lettres privées, des souscriptions autographiques, donc celui de l'usage courant'10. As might be expected, Marichal's description of cursive hands will do very well to describe the script of the vast majority of the tablets from Vindolanda. They must have been written with a relatively 'hard' pen, no doubt cut straight, which allowed little differentiation of thick and thin strokes. His description will not do, however, for No. 47 (152), which is an important text palaeographically, since it warns us not to apply too rigidly the distinction between bookhand and cursive. No. 47 (152) is not only elegantly written but also shows a marked difference between thick and thin strokes. The writer must have used a pen of the type described by Marichal as appropriate to bookhands. On the other hand, the letter-forms used in No. 47 (152), insofar as they survive in the tiny fragment which remains, are not those of contemporary capital bookhand but belong to the cursive type of hand represented in the great majority of the Vindolanda tablets. Indeed, the only tablet which is clearly in a different script is No. 11 (163), which is written in capitals; we might also note the distinctive script used in addresses written on the outside of letters, on which see Section E (Vol. I Ch. 4).

Apart from these texts, all the tablets from Vindolanda are written in some form of the cursive script. Roman cursive writing is normally divided into two categories or families of script, Old Roman Cursive and New Roman Cursive (henceforth referred to as ORC and NRC) 11. ORC, sometimes called 'capital cursive', was the dominant script for writing other than that in books during the first three centuries A.D. In the late third century it was replaced by NRC, often called 'minuscule cursive', which became the dominant script from about 300 onwards, leading indirectly to Caroline minuscule in about A.D. 800 and so to the script we employ today. Despite the many variations to be seen in the different tablets from Vindolanda12. we consider it legitimate to classify them all (with the few exceptions just noted) as written in ORC.

To anyone who is unfamiliar with the script of wax writing-tablets and papyri from the first two centuries of the Roman Empire, the writing in these tablets from Vindolanda may well appear extremely weird, almost as if it were written in a different alphabet from the Latin capitals with which we are familiar from inscriptions13 In fact, as Mallon has shown, this script is directly derived from the capital writing in use in the late first century B.C. and the first century A.D.14. Furthermore, the script in use in the Vindolanda tablets is very much the type of writing we should expect from our knowledge of writing on contemporary papyri. In consequence, the script itself has not proved a major obstacle in our attempts to decipher what is written in the tablets, especially as it rarely shows the strange or distorted letter-forms or the extravagant ligatures to be found in Greek papyri of this period. What has proved to be a very serious problem indeed is the condition in which the tablets have survived. It is not just their fragmentary condition - though this poses problems enough - but the fact that the ink is often badly faded or survives as little more than a blur, so that in some instances transcription is not possible at all. In his introduction to the Ravenna papyri, Tjäder remarks that reproductions of the papyri can give a very misleading impression: 'in einem Papyrus gibt es fast immer . . . kleine Risse and Löcher, die auf der Reproduktion als schwarze Striche oder Punkte hervortreten and sehr leicht fur Teile von Buchstaben genommen werden konnen.'15We would echo this with reference to the Vindolanda tablets but stress that our problem is more difficult than that of Tjäder. He was able to add 'überhaupt erlauben nur die Originale die 'anatomische' Untersuchung eines Papyrus, die oft fur eine sichere Lesung notwendig ist.' Unfortunately this is a statement which we cannot make; for the most part, recourse to the original tablets is of no help in deciding on the accuracy of a reading, since in most cases the infra-red photographs present us with a much more legible picture of what was written than do the tablets themselves. Yet the photographs contain a great many marks which at first glance look like writing, but which certainly are not letters and need to be disregarded; and, perhaps even worse, they contain a great many lines, dots and other dark marks which may or may not be writing. It is only very rarely that recourse to the originals helps us to resolve our doubts. We must stress, therefore, that in our transcriptions we have often had to be very subjective in deciding which marks to treat as writing and which not.

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