Vindolanda Tablets Online Tablets Exhibition Reference Help

Palaeography: Conclusion

Search database

View tablet number (118-573):

Search Tablets

Browse Tablets

Search Tablets database

Browse Tablets database

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

Print-friendly Tablet display

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. 69-71

The interest and importance of the Vindolanda tablets for a study of Latin handwriting during the period of the early Empire will be clear from the preceding sections. In this concluding section we shall attempt to assess how the tablets fit, from a palaeographical point of view, into the picture, especially in the light of the points raised in Sections A-C.

We have discussed at some length the vexed question of the development of NRC and the extent to which its origins are to be seen in ORC (Vol. I Ch. 4). As all palaeographers are agreed that the crucial years for the development of NRC lie in the third century A.D., we should not expect the Vindolanda tablets to have any direct evidence to contribute. However, it has been alleged more than once (Vol. I Ch. 4) that letter-forms found in ORC as early as the second or even the first century A.D. were indirectly of importance for the eventual development of NRC, and here we might hope to find relevant evidence in our tablets. In fact, some such evidence does emerge, as we have tried to indicate in the analysis of the letter-forms in Section D; note in particular the two forms of D, long and short I, one form of N, the two forms of P and of Q. On the other hand there is no evidence, so far as we can see, of the relevant forms of certain crucial letters, notably A and B. The most striking contribution made by the tablets in this area is perhaps the form of E shown in FIG. 11.12; such a form is certainly of importance for the development of NRC but has not, so far as we know, hitherto been found in a Latin papyrus as early as the first part of the second century. The other interesting letter-forms can all be paralleled from contemporary papyri, but the additional evidence from the tablets is in all cases valuable and will provide further material for use in this debate. Although the tablets have nothing radically new to contribute (except possibly for the form of E just mentioned), they do strengthen the view that several forms of the individual letters were in use at one and the same time in ORC of the first two centuries A.D., and to that extent they support the view that we can hope to find letter-forms in some types of ORC which were of importance for the development of NRC.

While this conclusion is of some importance, a further conclusion is, we think, of even greater importance: namely, the fact that the script of the tablets is in general terms, and despite the great variety of hands, very similar to that found in first- and second-century papyri from Egypt. From the very limited evidence hitherto available, the hypothesis has several times been advanced that Latin writing at this period was broadly speaking the same throughout the Empire107. Such a hypothesis is now considerably strengthened by the appearance of a substantial body of datable material from the western part of the Empire. We can now assert with some confidence that Latin cursive was written in much the same way at this period in all parts of the Roman world.

We mentioned above (Vol. I Ch. 4) the view which has been put forward, notably by Mallon and Cencetti, that Latin cursive writing, while still remaining within the category of ORC, developed into a different type in the second century from that current in the first (a type which Cencetti called 'strisciato'). We also indicated that, on the other hand, we know from the papyri of an early form of ORC, in use in the Julio-Claudian period, which was much more akin to the capital script than to the type of ORC which later became the norm. There is no example in the Vindolanda tablets of a document or letter written in what we understand by this 'early' type of ORC. The nearest thing we have to this is the occasional occurrence of letter-forms which clearly show their derivation from the capital108. We may be confident, therefore, that this type of ORC had ceased to be used in Britain by the time our tablets were being written. There is, equally, no sign of the later 'strisciato' type of ORC, even though there are examples of scripts which appear 'early' and others which appear 'late'. All our examples from Vindolanda fall between these two types of ORC which is more or less what we should expect, given the date at which these texts were written.

Within the type of ORC written in the late first and early second centuries, Cencetti distinguished two broadly dissimilar types, one of which he regarded as a 'wax-tablet' type of script (even though he quoted numerous examples of its use on papyrus) and another freer, more fluent type, which he considered to have been developed out of the 'wax-tablet' type when it became more usual to write on papyrus109. It may be that this is a fair description of the scripts on papyrus and that it is correct to suppose that the stiffer type of writing derives from a time when the writing-material used was the wax tablet110; but we do not find this classification of scripts into two broad categories a helpful way to look at the writing on the Vindolanda tablets. What strikes us here is the considerable variety of scripts in use at one and the same time. This variety does not apply simply to the letter-forms, as analysed in Section D, nor simply to the extent to which ligature is employed111, but affects the whole character of the writing. We have not felt it helpful or desirable to classify the scripts into different categories, but we would draw attention to the marked differences apparent between, on the one hand, the free, elegant, right-sloping scripts employed in Nos. 21 (248), 30 (295) and 43 (325) and, on the other, the stiff, relatively clumsy script of No. 22 (250), or the squarish, upright scripts of Nos. 34 (218) and 25 (247). Alongside the ordinary, unexceptional cursive represented in Nos. 1 (155) or 23 (263), we have idiosyncratic hands (especially No. 37 (225)) and others with an archaic look, for example Nos. 42 (324) and 45 (341). Every tablet, in fact, has its own distinctive style, and the principal impression we have formed from studying the writing of the tablets is, as we mentioned briefly above (cross-reference, Vol. I, Ch. 4), its immense variety. It is this variety above all which makes the Vindolanda tablets such a substantial and important contribution to the study of early Latin handwriting.

Previous page

Top of page

Next page