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Palaeography: Address script, Abbreviations and Symbols, Numerals

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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

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Introduction, Capital script, Cursive script

The Letter Forms

Address script, Abbreviations and Symbols, Numerals

Punctuation and Lectional Signs

From Alan Bowman and David Thomas, The Vindolanda Writing Tablets (Tabulae Vindolandenses II), London: British Museum Press, 1994. pp. 52-56

It was usual, though not universal, to write the name of the addressee on the back of a letter in very tall, elongated, spindly writing; see the examples illustrated in Plates XV, XX and XXV. This type of script is paralleled in letters from Egypt and from Dura-Europos.22

This is not a capital script.23 Of the letters which differ most in capital and cursive scripts, b and q do not occur in our addresses, but r is common and is clearly in the cursive form, as is d. The same is true, though less noticeably, of the other letters. It is, however, interesting that the writing gives the impression of being similar in most (though not all) of the examples preserved (e.g. in the hooks at the top of both strokes of u and at the top and bottom of i), even when the script used on the other sides is dissimilar. Attention may be drawn to a which often has a curve at the foot of the right-hand stroke (cf. the form illustrated in col.2 of fig.1).

Abbreviations and symbols24

On the whole abbreviation is not frequent in the tablets. When it does occur it is often not marked at all (a practice which is well attested from Latin papyri); thus virtually all occurrences of coh and praef have no mark to indicate the abbreviation, and there is hardly ever an indication of abbreviation in dates. When it is marked this is nearly always done either by a medial point following (i.e. a dot identical to that used for interpunct) or by a superscript bar, e.g. over n for noster or numerus. Special mention may be made of the abbreviation of the gentilicium Claudia written as Cl followed by a medial point (291),25 the possible abbreviation p(er) in 118, and the probable abbreviation of qui in the official reports (127-TVII53), which is unmarked except in 139 and possibly 145. These instances are all referred to further in the notes to the individual texts. Note also the abbreviation of Bat(auorum) on the back of 284 (cf. 242), marked by raising the t. s = semis is, strictly speaking, an abbreviation, but is discussed below, with symbols.

Symbols for only two monetary denominations appear in the tablets, the denarius and the as. The denarius-symbol is in the standard form which is virtually universal, a large X with a horizontal bar through the centre; there are, however, several texts in which the horizontal stroke does not transect the X but appears as a tick at the centre left.26 The as-symbol is a longish vertical which slants to the right and has a short, more or less horizontal tick placed centrally at the left.27 This probably occurs five times in 186. In 301.i.4 we have a similar symbol but with a top-stroke which makes it look more like s with a tick at the left; the context strongly suggests, however, that it must be the as-symbol.

As for the fractions of the denarius, the large s = s(emis) appears frequently; it may also be used of the as (see below) and can be used of the modius too (e.g. 190). There is one symbol which we have not been able to parallel and which occurs fairly frequently in a position which makes it certain that it must be a fraction of the denarius, presumably a quarter in view of the fact that the largest number of asses appearing in such contexts is three (185 passim, 187.i.10, 193.5, 202.a.2, 206.3); this looks like a shallow reversed c or a longish i curling to the left with a short superscript bar. It is perhaps not so very surprising that this has not hitherto occurred in Latin cursive since almost all the texts in which such symbols occur are in papyri from Egypt which employ an idiosyncratic method of calculating in denarii and obols.28 In 184.i.15 we might have a different quadrans symbol, which looks like a c with an extended top-stroke.29 The symbol in 193.4 following the reversed c with bar which we think represents a quarter-denarius, looks like a long i; the context is abraded and difficult and we do not know what it represents - perhaps a quarter-as.

Accounts which reckon in denarii and asses use the denarius symbol and denote the number of asses with short, horizontal ticks to a maximum of three. This is best illustrated in 182. We assume that allowance must be made for the style of individual hands and think that it is legitimate to see the short horizontal with two curly ticks below it in 184.ii.20 as a variation of the symbol for 3 asses. There are also several instances in which one tick, which can point up or down or curl, follows s = s(emis) (e.g. 179, 184.i.17), sometimes virtually joined; we interpret this as half a denarius and one as rather than an idiosyncratic form of s.30 186 is the only account which reckons in asses alone and it seems to represent the numerals 1 and 2 by ticks and those over 3 by digits.

We may also have symbols for fractions of the as but these naturally do not conform to the fractional weights which are normally identified.31 These symbols can be seen most clearly in 182. In line i.2, after the horizontal tick denoting one as, we might have a small s followed by a sickle- or 7-shaped sign; these are perhaps most naturally to be identified as a half and a quarter of an as respectively; the small s and the sickle-shaped sign might also occur in i.9 and the latter in line 5 on the back.

As for the measures, the only symbol which needs to be noted here is the large s = sextarius, which is very common. There is a notable variant in 193.3 and 4 where it has a horizontal stroke through the vertical; this is attested in inscriptions,32 but a particular reason for its appearance here may be that the writer wanted to differentiate it from s = s(emis) which follows it in both cases.

Finally, we should note the centurial symbol which is used for centurio and centuria, as elsewhere. Allowing for individual variations, this is recognisable in its common form which can look like a sickle or a figure 7 or a reversed C.33 We have noted two interesting variants: in 138.2 it is written like a figure 7 with a dot in the angle formed by the strokes;34 in 182.ii.13 it is more like a reversed C with a long tail and it has a horizontal tick in the middle at the left.


Numerals are often marked out by the addition of a superscript bar, sometimes with hooks at left and right, so that the mark is saucer-shaped. It is interesting that in almost every case the number of the cohort is marked in this fashion (143 is an exception), whereas other numbers, especially dates, are never marked in this way. In 263.ii.5 and 295.i.4 the number of the cohort is marked both by a superscript bar and the addition of dots before and after the figure. Marking out numbers in this way is a regular feature of Latin script, the intention being no doubt to alert the reader to the fact that i, l, x etc. are not to be treated as letters but as figures.

In the numbers iii and iiii the figures usually have marked serifs and join together, a common feature of numbers in Latin papyri. Noteworthy is the writing of iiii and iii in the dates in 178, 200 and 291.i.3, where the first figure is much taller than those following.35

Subtractives are used only very occasionally, e.g. 182.i.4, 185.28. The appearance of different conventions in one and the same text (154.5, xlvi; 154.16, xxxxv) is noteworthy but by no means unparalleled (see note to lines 5-6).36 There is no occurrence of iv in the tablets, iiii is always used. Similarly it was usual to write viiii, though ix is found in 180.21. The number of the Batavian cohort is always given in the form viiii.37

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