On January 8, 57 AD, Tibullus, a freed slave in London, promised to repay 105 denarii, a hefty sum, to another freed slave named Gratus. Meanwhile, one friend admonished another that he’s lent too much money and is being gossiped about. And a merchant was making a desperate plea for repayment of debts owed to him.
We know all this, thanks to an archeological treasure recently unearthed, as reported by Atlas Obscura: over 400 writing tablets that document financial transactions that are the oldest handwritten documents discovered in England.
Notekeeping, the Roman Way
As befits a business people, Romans founded London around 40 AD in order to facilitate commerce. And commerce means records. When recording something for posterity, the Romans used parchments made of leather. For day-to-day records, though, these were prohibitively expensive and hard to erase. So, they covered flat pieces of wood – usually recycled barrel staves – with black beeswax and scribbled on them using a stylus, not unlike today’s pens. These could easily be erased and reused. If someone had a heavy hand, though, they ended up scratching the surface of the slab. It is these scratchings, combined with modern photography, that allow us a rare view into a strangely familiar world.
The tablets were found in the mud under a 1950s office building, the future site of a fancy new Bloomberg headquarters in London. Scientists kept them in water, before cleaning and freeze-drying them for preservation. To read the messages preserved on the wood, researchers had to take digital photographs of the tablets from multiple angles, then overlay them so that the marks would emerge more clearly.
Eighty-seven of the tablets have been deciphered so far, and they include the first ever written reference to London.
A Birthday Invitation
The discovery follows that of some 400 wood tablets with correspondence found in the house of the Roman commander, Flavius Cerealis, prefect of the Ninth Cohort, at the site of Roman army camp just south of Hadrian’s wall, in the north of England. Remarkably, the tablets are only 1-3 mm thick, about the size of a modern postcard.
The tablet above invites the commander’s wife, Sulpicia Lepidina, to her sister’s birthday party:
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. […] Give my greetings to your Cerialis. My Aelius and my little son send him their greetings. I shall expect you, sister. Farewell, sister my dearest soul, as I hope to prosper, and hail.
This tiny scrap (it’s 223 mm wide, or 8.7″) contains not just a two-millennium-old text message sent between two sisters, but is also one of the oldest surviving specimens of a woman’s handwriting, which makes the tiny scrap even more memorable.
Another kind of treasure
Meanwhile, a construction crew discovered some 1,300 pounds of ancient Roman coins in Southern Spain. These were minted with the likeness of the emperors Maximian and Constantine, and stored inside 19 amphoras – sealed jug-like containers that usually contained wine or oil.
The coins were buried just about a yard beneath the earth in Tomares, outside of Seville, according to Atlas Obscura. They will likely go on display in the Seville Archaeological Museum.
You can find out more about Roman note-keeping and medieval books on Erik Kwakkel’s Medieval Books. Erik Kwakkel is a book historian and lecturer at Leiden University. His blog brings the world of medieval manuscripts to life in a wonderful way.
This post is part of a multi-part series of posts on ancient and Medieval wonders, to celebrate my 99c Pearseus: Rise of the Prince promo. As Pearseus has been described as “Ancient Greece in space,” it seemed strangely appropriate.
When I think about it, I feel awed that I can look inside the lives – and I mean ‘real’ lives – of people who lived so long ago. It’s a kind of time travel and it’s almost moving
Totally! That’s what I loved about it; the timelessness of it all 🙂
What amazing finds. I find such early evidence of a woman’s handwriting particularly of interest since a woman’s education was generally lacking except for the wealthy. Reading the note, I feel she must have belonged to the privileged class. We have come a long way.
Wood and beeswax tablets that were preserved all these years is fascinating.
Thanks for this interesting post, Nicholas.
That’s what surprised me, too – that a woman would know how to write. Then again, she’d have to be educated, to be the CO’s wife.
That’s a good point. As the CO’s wife, she is part of the elite who were educated.
I’ve read the birthday invitation before, but the rest is new to me. Lovely post, Nick, a fascinating insight into the daily lives of our ancient ancestors. Some things just don’t change, do they?
Indeed not, as I so often discover on your excellent blog 🙂
Human beings have all the same concerns, needs and wants, regardless of time and culture. If only more people could realise that…
Fabulous and fascinating post! 🙂
Thank you so much, Debbie 🙂
Always welcome Nicholas. 🙂
So interesting. It makes perfect sense that wood would be used for early messages. The thinness is surprising and it’s amazing that they lasted this long. I love the one between the sisters 🙂
That was so beautiful, wasn’t it? 🙂
I’d researched the practice of writing on wax tablets and have been using them in my low-tech fictional world, but I didn’t realize the wood could be so thin. Very useful information! I’m fascinated by the text of the letter inviting the sister to the birthday party, too; it sounds so modern. What a wonderful reminder of how similar people were in their everyday lives, even so very long ago under such different circumstances.
That’s the beauty of it. It’s great for us fantasy writers 😀
Your posts are just amazing, Nicholas! I had no idea this was how notes and letters were made at that time and this is just fascinating. I can’t imagine the excitement at the find!
Thank you so much, Noelle! As I was just telling Tess and Jan, I’m always worried that you all come here for book marketing, and I keep posting these fascinating (to me) finds, so I’ll lose you 🙂
This kind of interesting stuff is actually a relief from marketing info, so please keep it coming!
Lol – thanks 🙂
Exciting to read about the history or mankind especially where it comes to books and writing. Fabulous post, Nicholas . Thank you for sharing. 😀
I’m so relieved you think so, Tess. As I was just telling Jan, I’m always worried that you all come here for book marketing, and I keep posting these fascinating (to me) finds, so I’ll lose you 🙂
Riveting stuff Nick – thanks for sharing 😀
Thank you so much, Jan! I’m always worried that you all come here for book marketing, and I keep posting these fascinating (to me) finds, so I’ll lose you 🙂
I watched a very good TV documentary about the Hadrian’s Wall find at the time.How little things change, when it comes to good manners, and social events. The recent Bloomberg find was well-covered on the TV news too.
Best wishes, Pete.
Wasn’t aware of that.Thank you, Pete 🙂
Interesting find. Though I’m surprised the oldest handwritten document isn’t from a BC period. Curious as to what was used before.
Ancient Celts in Britain used message sticks, similar to the Aboriginal Australians. I don’t know if any survive, but they were carved to indicate numbers and symbols, so not really writing. The earlier wax tablets might well have been carried by their users, scratched out, and written on again. They may never have left them anywhere to be discovered later. I have also been surprised that earlier documents have not been found, given that the Romans were here in 55 BC. They didn’t stay long that time though.
With new finds every day, you never know 🙂
Thank you for sharing that; I didn’t know about the Celtic message sticks. I’ll have to look it up!
Thanks. Makes one wonder how much information was lost over the years.
Or how accurate our assumptions are.
Oh, we’re probably way off with a lot of stuff.
I so wish for a time machine. Wonder how many time we’d go, “so that’s no throne; it’s a toilet”
I’d bet on it being both more often than we realize.
I guess stones? Although Pete suggested they used message sticks, which haven’t survived (or, at least, none have been discovered yet).
There’s the cave paintings and hieroglyphs too. Those seem to be a different category though.
True enough. I guess they don’t qualify as documents.
Marvellous communication Nicholas- especially in the midst of the prevailing ones! Something universal to hold on to.
What a wonderful blog to start with for today.
I really love anything ancient and old – be it a building, a book, a letter or document, customes & dresses, etc …
I cannot explain this feeling of loving old things and my kids were joking on my secretaire desk look so out of place in the study room.
To speak of which I want to make a complete old style study this summer. LOL
I have an old soul, I think.
Truly fascinating facts to know that there are old writings either known and both unknown are still out there to be discover …
Thank you for sharing this, Nicholas!
Thank you so much, Sherrie! 🙂