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The Archaeological Context

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Tab. Vindol. II Introductory chapters

The Archaeological Context

The Roman Army

The format of the tablets



Tab. Vindol. II Category introductions

Tab. Vindol. II Abbreviations and Bibliography

Digitising Vindolanda

Tab. Vindol. II Addenda and Corrigenda

Tab. Vindol. I Introductory Chapters

The print publication and the online edition

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Tablets guide

From Alan Bowman and David Thomas, The Vindolanda Writing Tablets (Tabulae Vindolandenses II), London: British Museum Press, 1994. pp. 18-21

It is necessary to begin by considering the context in which these writing-tablets were found. The archaeology at Vindolanda has its own story to tell and it can be reviewed only very briefly here. R.E.Birley's analysis shows that in the early forts at Vindolanda which have given us the writing-tablets five periods of occupation can be identified; the dates assigned to these periods are subject to the caveat which must always be applied to such indications. The earliest fort begins c. AD 85 and terminates c. AD 92 (Period 1); the fort is then enlarged and Periods 2 and 3 run down to c. AD 102/3 (Period 2 c. AD 92-97, Period 3 c. AD 97-102/3); after a short hiatus, Period 4 perhaps begins in AD 104 and takes us to about AD 120; the occupation of Period 5 lies between the years c. AD 120 and 130.1

The excavations of 1985-9 have examined the southern part of the central range on and adjacent to the via principalis of the enlarged fort.2 The most important structures of Periods 2 and 3 are the timber buildings which fronted the street on the east side. These buildings certainly formed part of the praetorium, the residence of the commanding officers of units stationed at Vindolanda during Periods 2 and 3, the latter phase a rebuilding of a substantially higher quality than the former. The main living quarters of the officers and their families probably lay beneath the later stone fort and are now inaccessible. The rooms at the southern end of the west side, which have been excavated, seem to include a large yard, a kitchen and storeroom, and may have been devoted to the domestic services and organisation of the household. During Period 4 the area of the earlier praetorium seems to have been occupied by a barrack-block, the southern end of which was sealed off from the rest, perhaps to form the living-quarters of the centurions or optiones. The function of the building of Period 5 is more problematic. It seems likely to have been a workshop (fabrica), but it is perhaps worth bearing in mind that at Valkenburg the functions of barrack accommodation and workshop facility seem to have been combined in part of one building or complex.3

The writing-tablets were deposited in layers of bracken and straw flooring in successive occupation levels in the buildings and on the street outside. These deposits, some of which show signs of incineration, look like the result of dumping of rubbish and contain a wide variety of other organic remains and artefacts. The location of the early finds suggested that the presence of organic remains, in particular human urine and excreta, might have been significant in creating chemical conditions crucial for the preservation of the wooden tablets.4 As the excavations progressed, however, tablets were found in areas where these conditions did not obtain and it now seems likely that the damp, anaerobic environment is sufficient to account for the preservation, as it seems to be elsewhere, notably at Carlisle.5

Writing-tablets have been found in all the phases of occupation identified in the pre-Hadrianic area. A small number of tablets were found in the ditch on the west side of the Period 1 fort, lying under the west front of the Period 2 building. Although it is not impossible to envisage documents being deposited outside the fortification, it now seems more open to doubt that this material was the product of the earliest fort and it is more likely that it was part of the debris from Period 2.6 Most of the writing-tablets have been found in contexts which unambiguously associate them with Periods 2, 3, 4 and 5, from c. AD 92 onwards. The great majority of the tablets cluster in Periods 2 and 3, both on the street (WVIA) and in the adjacent praetorium structures to the east. The tablets are scattered in these rooms and on the street. Signs of burning on some of the tablets might suggest that they were carried out as rubbish from the inner rooms and taken to bonfires on the street when these buildings were abandoned or rebuilt; R.E.Birley has kindly informed us that the site of the bonfire in which the tablets were burned was discovered near the south gate in the excavation of 1993.7

The deposit at Vindolanda contains a mixture of letters and documents, personal and administrative, which were deposited as the area in the central southern sector of the enlarged fort was rebuilt or re-occupied in successive phases. The dating of these levels and the assignation of particular tablets or groups of tablets and other artefacts to specific levels and locations is a complex matter which is discussed in the archaeological reports and need not be repeated in detail here.8 It may be useful, however, to emphasise some points which are particularly relevant to the tablets. We have only two pieces of evidence in the texts themselves which help us to date the tablets. 225 (Period 3) refers to the governor (Neratius) Marcellus who is known to have been in office in AD 103 and thus only suggests an approximate date. This text has an additional importance, however, since the handwriting associates it quite clearly with the correspondence of Flavius Cerialis. The internal textual evidence thus reinforces the archaeological, and we can locate Cerialis and his correspondence firmly in Period 3, the end of which, according to the dendrochronological evidence, was in or not long after AD 103.9 Much of this correspondence was found in Room IV, the yard fronting the street (Room VIA) and the street itself (WVIA). The second piece of evidence is more precise. 186, assigned to Period 4 (Room IV), is dated by the consuls of AD 111, but the textual evidence of this document does not provide any links or associations with any other texts.

Our approach to the chronology of the tablets as a whole is somewhat different from that adopted by A.R.Birley in his survey.10 Since there are, quite understandably, a significant number of tablets in which the content does not fit the archaeological context to which they are assigned, and it is a well-known fact of archaeological life that objects are not infrequently found in strata where they do not belong, we have preferred not to group the tablets by period. We have taken the evidence of period and location as general indicators and not as proof of association with a particular person or group of texts or as a basis for reading or interpreting a text in a particular way. Thus, it is quite likely that a large number of the tablets assigned to Period 3 belong to the papers of Flavius Cerialis and we think it consistent with the available evidence to refer some of the details in the accounts to the domestic administration of his household; for example, the inventory of kitchen equipment (194) was found in a room which has been identified as a kitchen (Room VIII). The content of the group of tablets discovered in Room XIV of the Period 4 building (180, 181, 182, 343, 344) is consistent with the view that they come from residential quarters of centurions or optiones, but we would not wish to argue that any text found in that location must be identified with or refer to the activities of such officers. Conversely, we have avoided taking the position that because a particular tablet is attributed to Period 4, for instance, it cannot belong with the correspondence of Flavius Cerialis.11

Apart from the phenomena noted above, we cannot specify, beyond the broad chronological limits, for how long and with what system the texts were stored, and the patterns of deposit when they were discarded. The archaeology at Vindolanda serves us much better than in many places (Masada, for example, where we simply do not know how, why or by whom the material was collected12), but we remain very mindful of the principle most elegantly expressed by Bingen in discussing the excavation of ostraca at Mons Claudianus: Sur le plan historique, un ostracon de l'an 14 de Trajan fixe à un moment précis l'existence d'un acte humain générateur de relations humaines à un endroit que nous pouvons fixer avec plus ou moins de précision. Sur le plan de la fouille, l'endroit de la découverte est bien connue, mais c'est le moment ou le document a rejoint ce point précis qui est incertain."13 It is worth noting, however, that the lateral range of the deposit presents less of a problem. If the tablets were collected and transported within this small area, it need not worry us unduly if fragments of what appears to be the same document or letter were found several metres apart.

It is important to emphasise that the area in which the tablets were found cannot have been the location of the official record-office of the fort, which will have been situated within the headquarters building (principia) in the central sector of the site. Sometimes, no doubt, the contents of the tabularium (record-office) will have been dumped or destroyed, sometimes moved when the unit which generated them was transferred. There is clearly a deposit of records from the tabularium at Bu Njem and we must owe the preservation of papyri from the archives of the Twentieth Cohort of Palmyrene Archers, stationed at Dura-Europos on the Euphrates in the mid-third century AD, to the fact that the fort was captured by the Persians in the 250s.14

At Vindolanda we have a sample of the written material which ended up in the commanding officers' residence or was generated there, or in the later barrack-block and workshop - in many ways a much more varied and potentially interesting mixture than that at Bu Njem. Some, at least, of the tablets found in the praetorium may bear some relationship (we cannot tell precisely what) to records in the tabularium.15 Although there are some suggestive groupings of tablets, we cannot now discern whether any precise filing-system lay behind the keeping of letters and documents in these buildings. Some of the stilus tablets have notations on the edge which we would expect to identify the nature of their contents and it may be that these will offer some helpful indications.16 For the present, we are not able to make a clear distinction in the pattern of preservation between letters and documents.17 The range of subject-matter and content is truly astonishing, especially in the context of the frontier area of a province which had no long history of urban or literate culture. As at Vindolanda, the indications are clear that this phenomenon is also found in the early phases of the Roman presence at Carlisle.18

There is little to add on the subject of the technical matters discussed with reference to the tablets found in the 1970s. The patterns of legibility in the ink tablets do not vary significantly from our earlier description and we remain virtually completely dependent on very fine infra-red photographs.19 As ever, the problem with these is to distinguish those marks which are ink from those which are not, a difficulty to which we often refer in the notes to our readings. There are several cases in which we feel that technical improvements might offer better legibility, but the likely expense and length of time involved in the necessary experimentation is great. Computer-based techniques of image enhancement would seem, in particular, to offer a way forward. We were fortunate to be able to call upon some expertise in this area but were only able to experiment with the photographs. It is fair to say that it proved possible to obtain a better image of text which we had already been able to see and read but we did not succeed in producing an image which enabled us to see or to read text when we had previously been unable to do so.20 It may well be that producing digitised images directly from the original tablets would give better results, but at present this involves too many practical problems. This is likely to be the most promising way forward with the stilus tablets.21

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