Tuesday, 21 October 2008

Postcards from the Edge

Read the two short paragraphs below. The first one is an invitation to a birthday party; the second looks like a note from a concerned mum to her son serving with the military somewhere in the Middle East:

On 11 September, sister, for the day of the celebration of my birthday, I give you a warm invitation to make sure that you come to us, to make the day more enjoyable for me by your arrival, if you are present.

I have sent you socks from Sattua, two pairs of sandals and two pairs of underpants, two pairs of sandals...

Nothing particularly surprising about either of them, is there? Until you realise that they were written around 1900 years ago. These are just two of the many letters and other documents that form part of the remarkable hoard that is the Vindolanda Tablets.

Vindolanda was a Roman fort, built to control the passage of people and goods across the border marked by Hadrian's Wall. It was a few miles from Newcastle and about a mile south of the Wall, the northernmost outpost of the empire in Britain. The garrison consisted mainly of non-Italian auxiliary troops; Gauls, Germans, Dacians (present day Moldova and Romania) and possibly even some Greeks. What the latter thought about being transported from their sunny lands to some cold, wet and barbaric bit of north Britannia can only be guessed at! The officers were Romans from Italy, and were often accompanied by their wives and families, so one can imagine them trying to make the best of a bad situation by carrying on as if they were in Rome. This explains the birthday party invitation from Claudia Severa, wife of a local commander, to Sulpicia Lepidina, wife of the commander at Vindolanda.

The auxiliary troops were not Roman citizens. However, they were generally granted citizenship when their military service came to an end. And although Vindolanda came to be almost self-sufficient in terms of the necessaries of life (probably obtaining from the local Britons those things they were unable to produce or make for themselves), one could never have too many socks or underpants; hence the second letter.

The Vindolanda Tablets themselves are not tablets at all, but very thin slices of wood, on which the occupants of the garrison wrote in ink in a style called 'Old Roman Cursive', a form of handwriting that is incredibly difficult to read. There are apparently over a thousand of them, and they survived due to a happy accident. When, almost two millennia ago, some tidy Roman administrator had a clear-out of his paperwork and dumped the tablets in the open air, they were soon afterwards covered by a thick layer of clay from building works. This clay blocked out the oxygen that would have allowed bacteria to thrive and destroy the tablets, leaving them, if not perfect, at least good enough to be conserved and translated by the Vindolanda archaeological team.

I don't think the Romans were that keen on the local population, despite the fact they probably relied upon them fairly heavily for goods and services. One tablet contains the expression Brittunculi. This has been translated as Little Britons. I leave it to your imagination as to what the Britons may have called the Romans in return.

The 'Little Britons' letter. 'Brittunculi' is the first word on the penultimate line. See? I told you it was hard to read.

The last extract I have decided to copy in full. It shows two things. Firstly, that cash flow in the second century AD was just as much of a problem as it is now; and secondly, that Roman roads weren't all they were cracked up to be!

Octavius to his brother Candidus, greetings. The hundred pounds of sinew from Marinus - I will settle up. From the time when you wrote about this matter, he has not even mentioned it to me. I have several times written to you that I have bought about five thousand modii of ears of grain, on account of which I need cash. Unless you send me some cash, at least five hundred denarii, the result will be that I shall lose what I have laid out as a deposit, about three hundred denarii, and I shall be embarrassed. So, I ask you, send me some cash as soon as possible. The hides which you write are at Cataractonium - write that they be given to me and the wagon about which you write. And write to me what is with that wagon. I would have already been to collect them except that I did not care to injure the animals while the roads are bad.

The Vindolanda Tablets are on display at the British Museum. Do go and see them if you are able. They bring the past to life in a way that no dusty old history book can. Or you can find out more about the tablets and the fort here.

Image copyright © Centre for the Study of Ancient Documents, The British Museum and other copyright holders.


Rob (Inukshuk Adventure) said...

Most interesting. Thanks for sharing.

chris hale said...

You're most welcome, Rob.