For Western students studying Roman history, Vindolanda is the site that keeps on giving.
Last month, Classical Studies students and researchers from Western were part of an international team that discovered a cache of 25 Roman letters at the first century Roman fort located one mile south of Hadrian’s Wall in Northern England.
The Latin cursive in which the letters are written is difficult for untrained eyes for decipher; the full extent of the discovery’s significance will not be understood until the text is transcribed and translated, a relatively short process that will follow a three-month chemical conservation process on the documents.
Vindolanda, a designated UNESCO World Heritage Site, housed the most famous documents of the Roman world. It has been a location of study for Classical Studies students since 2012, when Western’s Field School at Vindolanda was developed by professors Elizabeth Greene, a Roman archeologist, and Alexander Meyer, a Roman historian.
Over the years, the pair has acted as supervisors for excavations and volunteer programs at the fort. The school provides training in field excavation, archaeology and history of Roman Britain for students through excavations and the first-hand study of Roman artefacts unearthed at the site.
“Normally, an archeological environment is dry and things are always encrusted with rust. You usually don’t get organics like wood, leather and textiles. But in Vindolanda, if we’re in the right part of the site, students will get the experience of working in (an anaerobic environment) where there’s no oxygen, no bacteria getting in,” said Greene, the field school’s co-director.
“There’s all sorts of possibilities to come out of that. We’ve found leather shoes there before. The golden ticket down there is if you can find writing tablets, and this time, we really hit a cache.”
While students helped above ground, Greene was deep in the trench, digging with Andrew Birley, CEO and Director of Excavations for The Vindolanda Trust.
“We found about 25 new writing tablets. It’s cool to find 25 new ones, and rare to find a cache of all of them together,” Greene said.
Such finds haven’t been unusual at Vindolanda. Carlisle, a nearby archaeological site in Cumbria, has yielded 50 or so tablets while Vindolanda has produced more than a thousand. Digging them out to study them, however, is not a simple task.
Over the course of a couple of days, Greene and Birley excavated a great deal of soil from the trench which had to be sifted by hand to unearth the letters discovered by the team. You can’t scrape away in the pit with a trowel, Greene noted, as you will completely destroy a writing tablet you may not know is hidden in the soil.
“It’s a piece of wood about the size of a postcard. It’s literally 2mm thick. It’s soft. If you excavate correctly, you can get it out complete; if you don’t, it will be in a thousand pieces and it will shred. It’s a thin, wet, piece of wood,” she explained.
“We take a chunk of soil and get it out of the trench; we put it in buckets and we have more than a dozen people up there sieving by hand. They peel the organic layers apart and it’s between those layers that you find these tablets.”
The team dug out what is called a group of “confronting tablets,” Greene said. They are thin, treated pieces of wood, with a shimmer to its surface and visible writing in ink. Romans folded these together and a single letter could have as many as four tablets joined via small tie holes and notches. Confronting tablets are two pieces of the same letter pushed together.
“These are letters – we don’t know yet what they say. The real process starts now; they are in conservation at Vindolanda and will go through a three-month chemical conservation process. When they come out, they will be between two pieces of glass, read with infrared photography,” she explained.
“The fact we have a number of complete tablets, not cut-off sentences, means we don’t get just a single glimpse of something. The full picture of whatever conveyance is there, is in there,” she said.
“The earliest handwriting of a woman was found at this site. We’ve found social correspondence of Roman families, soldiers, officers – it’s been game-changing for how we think of Roman families. Personal letters tell us about people, give us a sense of community surrounding the military. It’s important for giving us a sense of the day-to-day workings of the Roman army, and correspondence of women.”
For Greene, whose research has focused on the above, this discovery is particularly exciting.
Early reports from Vindolanda indicate one of the newly found tablets may be referring to a character already known from letters discovered in a previous dig. In the earlier correspondence, a character named Masclus wrote to his commanding officer asking for more beer to be sent to his outpost on the wall. In the newly discovered letter, Masclus is requesting leave – possibly with a painful hangover.