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In search of Roman writing tablets at Vindolanda fort

Archaeologists taking part in the summer excavation programme at Vindolanda Roman Fort, on Hadrian’s Wall say they are hopeful the dig will yield more examples of the famous Vindolanda tablets discovered at the site in 1973.

In search of Roman writing tablets at Vindolanda fort
Excavations at Vindolanda Roman Fort, just south of Hadrian’s Wall in Northumberland 
(Northern England) have brought to light more than 1600 tablets to date
 [Credit: © The Vindolanda Trust]
The wooden leaf tablets with ink text are the oldest surviving instances of hand written script in Britain, containing everything from military directives to party invites revealing the day-to-day life of Romans on and around Hadrian's Wall.

The five-month dig at the important Roman site, which boasts a complex of at least nine forts and settlements at the heart of the wall, has already yielded the remains of late 4th century and post-Roman buildings, glass beads, stone counters and an intriguing rusty clump of chain mail.

Now archaeologists are hopeful Vindolanda’s unique "anaerobic" conditions, which lie in a deeper, oxygen-free layer, will lead to the discovery of more fragments of Roman writing tablet.

In search of Roman writing tablets at Vindolanda fort
Vindolanda writing tablet
[Credit: © The Vindolanda Trust]
“The Vindolanda anaerobic levels not only preserve our superb writing tablets but they are also kind to all sorts of different materials,” explained writing tablet conservator and Director of the Vindolanda Trust, Patricia Birley.

“Bronze, such as intricate scale armour, emerges shining like gold and everyday objects like a wooden comb in its leather case are in perfect condition after conservation.”

The rare conditions exist deep below the stone remains of the 3rd century Roman town. Experts are hoping to find evidence of the transition of Vindolanda from an early outpost into a major fort that predates Hadrian’s Wall. There is even talk of discovering a headquarters building - billed as the “nerve centre of the Roman army”.

In search of Roman writing tablets at Vindolanda fort
Dr Andrew Birley, Director of Excavations for the Vindolanda Trust 
[Credit: © The Vindolanda Trust]
Director of Excavations Dr Andrew Birley - whose father Robin Birley was closely involved in the 1973 discovery - described how current excavations could provide "one of the defining moments of Roman archaeology for the 21st century”.

“Roman army headquarters buildings were the main record offices for the communities, repositories for both pay and administration,” he added.

“At the moment there are no writing tablets which refer directly to the building of the Wall. Is this about to change?”

For more information see the Vindolanda Trust's webpage

Author: Richard Moss | Source: Culture24 [April 22, 2014]

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