In 410AD a group of Roman soldiers were sent to a military stockade in a province they didn’t want. These men promptly retreated into the Mediterranean underground where they survived as soldiers of fortune. If you have a problem, if no-one else can help and if you can find them…
…They are the V-Team-
…could you please send them more socks? (with our most profound apologies to the A-Team…)
The Vindolanda Tablets are a unique archaeological find and counted as the ‘Top Archaeological Treasure of Britain‘, their special place in history only matched by how utterly uninspiring they look in real life…
But lets go back a bit: right back, and figure out where Vindolanda is anyway… the short answer is that it’s here:
It’s a Roman fort which ended up right in the middle of Hadrians Wall. The fort was there before the wall, and went through successive rebuilds (begining in c.85AD) until the Roman
retreat strategic withdrawal in 410AD. It guarded the Stanegate, on the Roman road between the River Tyne and the Solway Firth. What was interesting about the remains was that the conditions at the site were discovered to be anoxic (little or no oxygen present), which is a posh word to say that finds were in an excellent state of preservation and more than normal survived, including shoes and wooden artifacts.
Surprisingly it’s the wooden stuff we’re interested in, as correspondence in those days was not done by e-mail. Nope, you got thin pieces of wood about the same size as a modern postcard, concertina style wrote your letters in carbon-based ink, folded them up and sealed them before handing them to the courier to take across the Empire. The awesome thing about the site of Vindolanda is that there was discovered the largest collection of private and military correspondence surviving into the modern day. There are 752 recorded thus far, although tablets still continue to be found at the site. The one right at the top of this article is a business letter from Octavius, supplying goods to the Roman Army. As an aside, the tablets were probably made locally, and most were written in a type of cursive script not seen elsewhere.
To the left is a chart of the commonest cursive letters found on the Vindolanda Tablets and below how they were constructed.
Military correspondence, such as the one from the supplier Octavian, are not the only type of letter discovered here. There are private letters too, most notably the birthday party invitation written from Claudia to Sulpicia Lepidina on tablet 291:
‘Claudia Severa to her Lepidina greetings. 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 (?). 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.”
Claudia, bless her, was somewhat of a posh lady, as the tablet contains two distinct styles of cursive. One writing the greeting and farewell in presumbaly her own hand, and the second, writing the body of the letter probably that of her educated servant or scribe.
Soldiers wrote letters too, some to former mess-mates such as this one admonishing the receiver on tablet 311:
“Sollemnis to Paris his brother, very many greetings. I want you to know that I am in very good health, as I hope you are in turn, you neglectful man, who have sent me not even one letter. But I think that I am behaving in a more considerate fashion in writing to you … to you, brother, … my messmate. Greet from me Diligens and Cogitatus and Corinthus and I ask that you send me the names … Farewell, dearest brother”
But my favourite has to be the wonderfully named tablet 346 which presumably fulfills a request for more socks and underpants, and perhaps (hopefully for the receiver) accompanied said items. Before you get all mystified – the people stationed here were from Gaul. A tad warmer and drier than the northern reaches of Britannia. The Roman army had a bright idea that all those who enlisted (conscripted or voluntary) were stationed away from their own provinces. It gave the men a stronger loyalty to each other within the unit, and also prevented them having any personal feelings when it came to quelling any local populace uprisings. So men from nice, warm, sunny Gaul were stationed at the furthest reaches of the northern Empire, and just in case you thought this was unusual you need only look at the occupants of the fort at Hardknott Pass in Cumbria. There was a unit from Dalmatia (roughly modern day Croatia/Serbia) stationed there, half way up a mountain on a tiny shelf of inhospitable land just big enough for a fort, and to top it off, they were a cavalry unit. Up a mountain. So… anyway, back to Vindolanda *zoom*
The fab thing about reading these tablets is that you get an instant snapshot of what life was like from both a military and personal point of view. It’s an exceptionally rare thing, and it’s fortunate that even one of these delicate tablets survives into the modern day, let alone 752 of them documented so far, and excavations at the site ongoing.
You can find out more about the tablets at two sites run by the Oxford University which includes a search facility: the original site is HERE and the second, complimentary site is HERE. A short article about the site by Current Archaeology can be found HERE and the website for the Vindolanda Charitable Trust can be found HERE