Wednesday, August 18, 2010

"Britain's Scattered Heritage": The Vindolanda Tablets

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Scattered heritage: The Vindolanda Tablets. Everybody knows that the Romans wrote on wax tablets, right? It was however a great surprise to learn that examples had been excavated in northern Britain, near Hadrian's Wall. The story is one of the tragedies of British archaeology.

John Scumby was a sheep farmer at Chesterholm at a place where the Roman Stanegate crosses the line of the Wall. His house lies just outside the boundary of the scheduled ancient monument of the Roman auxilliary fort (castrum) called Vindolanda one of the main military posts on the northern frontier of Britain before the building of Hadrian's Wall. In 1954 he allowed local Latin teacher John Snape to carry out excavations of some Roman walls in the farmyard behind the house. There was at this tme no official archaeological presence in the area (as in most of britain in the 1950s), but Oliver Mellors, an employee of the local museum dropped in from time to time to see what was coming up, but it was found that many of the walls had been robbed out and there were few finds. There was apparently a sharp disagreement between farmer Scumby and Mellors (it is believed it had something to do with the farmer's unmarried twenty-year old daughter) in May 1955, and collaboration between Snape and the museum came to an abrupt end, though it was known that Snape carried on digging there for another few years. He never published any report of this work.

In 1957 news got out that the Archaeological Museum in Tongeren, Brussels had acquired a massive group of several hundred recently-surfaced wooden writing tablets. Their source was apparently unknown, but as translations of the texts began to be published, it became clear that many are official military documents, and some referred to Tungrian auxiliary troops stationed in Britain. It may not be a coincidence that Tongeren was the central place of the Tungrian tribal lands, and the locals were soon celebrating the tablets as relics of their own regional ancestors. Scumby and Snape never admitted to finding the tablets and selling them abroad, and there was no possibility under British law of charging them with any offence, but most scholars are sure that the tablets came from Vindolanda, though excavations in the farmyard after the death of Mr Scumby in 1997 failed to reveal any trace of further tablets or deposits likely to contain them (this may be due to a lowevered watertable caused by land drainage schemes of the 1970s). Most British scholars today refer to the Tongeren tablets as the Vindolanda tablets.

These are the oldest surviving handwritten documents from Britain, they are written in Latin in Roman cursive script. While many are too fragmentary to make sense (probably partly due to unskilled conservation by the original finder) others have substantial portions of text surviving and are a superb record of everyday life in Roman Britain and throw light on the extent of literacy there in the second and third centuries. Most of the tablets are official military documents relating to the auxiliary units stationed at the fort. However, others are private letters sent to or written by the serving soldiers. They give remarkable insight into the working and private lives of the Roman garrison. One of the tablets mentions "Brittunculi" (diminutive of Britto; hence 'little Britons'), obviously a derogatory, or patronizing, term used by the Roman garrisons that were based in Northern Britain to describe the locals. The best-known document is perhaps Tablet 291 (photo at top of page), written around 100 AD by Claudia Severa, wife of Aelius Brocchus, the commander of an adjacent fort, to Sulpicia Lepidina, wife of Flavius Cerealis, Prefect of the ninth cohort of Batavians stationed at the Roman fort in Vindolanda, inviting her to a birthday party. Most of the letter is written by a scribe, but Severa added the last four lines in her own hand. These lines say “I will expect you, sister. Hail and farewell, sister, my dearest soul, so may I prosper”. (sperabo te soror/ uale soror anima/ mea ita ualeam / karissima et haue). This is one of the earliest extant examples of writing in a classical language by a woman's own hand.

Photo: Some more of the Vindolanda Tablets (Tongeren Museum of Prehistory).
The British have made a formal request for the return of the tablets, offering to reimburse the Belgian museum the cost of their original purchase plus adjustment for inflation. The Belgians have instead offered replicas of the tablets to be displayed in the local museum, plus making the texts and detailed facsimile photographs available online, but so far refused to negotiate the return of the originals.

See the Vindolanda tablets Online web resource.

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