Letters from some Romans: the Bloomberg tablets
Excavations at the building site for the headquarters of Bloomberg PL in the City of London have unearthed many exciting finds over the last few years. Prime among them must be the large number of Roman writing tablets that have been preserved by the damp conditions of the ground near the Walbrook river area on the site. An earlier blog on this will be found here.
Some 405 of these writing tablets have been found, the largest single number anywhere in Britain. Although there is a large number, only a few (15) are more or less complete, while 80 all told have some traces of text on them, and there are 224 in addition with no traces of text discernible. From internal evidence and from some dating, and also from the location within particular time-levels of the excavations, these were written in the period before and, mainly, after the Boudica-led revolt against Roman occupation, and so approximately AD 57 to 59/60, and AD 62 to 85/95.
News of the writing tablets appeared extensively in the mass media in early June 2016, as a result of publication of Roger Tomlin’s excellent Roman London’s first voices: Writing tablets from the Bloomberg excavations, 2010 – 14 (London: MOLA, Bloomberg). This is a beautifully produced large format book, the contents of which provide context for the excavations and the location of the writing tablet finds at a number of points within the site, together with technical detail from specialists writing on other aspects, such as the archaeological background, woodworking tools and manufacture of the tablets, conservation aspects, and site and studio photography of the tablets and related artefacts. A website? It seems not, which is a pity.
Tomlin’s book provides both photographs of the tablets and exact transcripts in Latin of all those with traces of text, laid out in the same line lengths as appear on the tablets, with background information provided and any doubtful readings indicated. This is followed by English translations into today’s style, with capital letters where appropriate and line length running on. The accompanying commentary also provides information with regard to a range of interpretational matters. The photographs appear in 1:1 scale, which is extremely helpful in getting the measure of what the tablets actually look like and also what they might feel if held in the hand. There are colour plates of 136 tablets in total, accompanied by this extensive documentation.
The tablets are made of wood, mainly from recycled wooden barrels which originally arrived in Britain with wine and other produce in them. The tablets have a recessed inner area which was covered in wax and written on, then wiped or smoothed over in order to be reused. This is different from the Vindolanda writing tablets, the most famous of the British Roman finds, and located in the Vindolanda fort area on Hadrian’s Wall (an area running across northern England and close to Scotland). The Vindolanda tablets are slivers of local woods and written on in ink, and they were preserved because dumped as rubbish and covered over with peat in a very boggy and damp area when the fort was disbanded. They are also primarily from a significantly later period than the Bloomberg tablets.
A high proportion of the Bloomberg writing tablets do not have fully legible text on them. They were written and overwritten and now the words on most of them have largely gone, leaving just faint traces of text behind. There are a small number which have more or less all the original text present and legible, but more often what now remains are, tantalisingly, part sentences, half words, or even just single letters. Even after reading them all, little sense is gained of particular writers or recipients or indeed the ongoing business that these documents were concerned with. This is very different from the Vindolanda tablets, where there are many more tablets with significant content on them, much content is considerably more detailed, and there are clusters of tablets written by, or rather signed and authorised by, particular people whose names are known. The result with the Vindolanda tablets is that a strong sense of people and activities is gained, rather than the more fragmentary picture conveyed of the garrison in London. But however partial and fragmentary, this is still a picture that was not known about at all before the excavations at the Bloomberg site. And in particular with regard to letters and related documents of life, the Bloomberg tablets immeasurably help in understanding the role of writing and of letters in the early Romano-British context.
There was universal literacy among the Roman army legions, including of foreign legions when these were assimilated, as something required of every member regardless of rank or level or place of origin. This was a key feature of Roman army organisation and intelligence, something which put them apart from the different peoples they conquered and enabled rapid exchanges of communication at a pace which supported not only military control but also bureaucratic rule.
Perhaps paradoxically, then, many of these tablets were written by scribes rather than their originator and signatory and they were written for literate officers, men and tradespeople. The army had its own professional scribes, while many of the men whose documentary traces survive employed scribes to do the work of putting down the content of the documents they wanted or needed written. Some of the scribes, as with the servant class more generally, were slaves, and often it was slaves who expedited the action reported on or set in motion in these documents. However, the word ‘slave’ here had a very different meaning from later. Slaves were from conquered peoples and in this sense anybody could become a slave, while the state of slavery was often transitory in the sense that manumission was not insuperably difficult, and slaves might also have considerable household and wider influence.
All the Bloomberg tablets are by, to and about men. As the period of the discoveries is immediately before and after a major revolt against Roman rule, and the tablets were the products of an army garrison in the centre of the area this occurred in, this is by no means surprising. In these circumstances, and unlike Vindolanda during the much more settled period that its writing tablets date from, it would have been unlikely that the wives and families of higher ranking officers were present, so there are no documentary traces of them unlike the women who have occasioned so much interest at Vindolanda.
In thinking about the structure and content of the Bloomberg tablets, the key question of ‘what is a letter, and where does letterness begin and end?’ is immediately raised. As with the Vindolanda letters, there are issues in how the different tablets and the contents have been classified, as letters, orders, accounts, receipts, legal documents… Some documents are clearly letters as indicated by the formalities of address, the opening and related signs of conventional epistolary practices. However, even back then in the AD 60s, the letter was a slippery and permeable form of writing, so that orders, accounts and so on could take the form of a letter, although not of a personal kind. The fragmentary and partial character of the traces on most of the Bloomberg tablets adds to the interpretational difficulties here.
Focusing specifically on content, a lot of the tablets are concerned with money, payments, costs, loans, receipts. This is not surprising because these are areas of activity and exchange between people that require records which can demonstrate proofs of different kinds regarding money that has been given or money that is or will become due.
Remembering that a high proportion of these writing tablets contain traces that are too fragmentary to be made to sense of, the contents of three will give a flavour of what those with more substance are like.
“Taurus to Macrinus his dearest lord, greetings… in good health … when Catarrius had come and had taken the beasts of burden away, investments which I cannot replace in three months. ?Yesterday I was at (the house of) Diadumenus, but he (Catarrius) arrived unexpectedly for a single day …” [Fig 68 p116]
A formal letter. Perhaps, from wider context, from someone who was active in both London and Carlisle. The “dearest lord” in the address is possibly more likely between equals than from someone to a superior.
“… I ask you by bread and salt that you send soon as possible the 26 denarii in victoriati and the 10 denarii of Paterio …” [Fig 72 p126]
A heartfelt request, probably sent by someone who knew his addressee, who might perhaps have been a partner in a business venture.
“In the consulship of Publius Marius Celsus and Lucinius Gallus, on the 12th day before the Kalends of November (21 October AD 62). I, Marcus Rennius Venustus, (have written and say that) I have contracted with Gaius Valerius Proculus that he bring from Verulamium by the Ides of November (13 November) 20 loads of provisions at a transport charge of one-quarter denarius for each, on condition that … one as … to London; but if … the whole …” [Fig 88 p156]
A formal letter penned by scribe, it records the details of the transaction involving the transportation of goods and payment for each load of these.
And so, what of ‘the letter’ here?
Those writing tablets that are clearly letters show the conventions of the time, including what the address is composed by, how they refer to the addressee, also how the writer is positioned in relation to them. Others are incomplete and so it is difficult to tell whether the different forms of writings had their own conventions (the Vindolanda examples suggest so).
Content is largely (and perhaps oddly) familiar beneath such differences as kinds of currency, how dating is done, the formalities of address. Remembering the limited kinds of documents that have survived from this site, this largely concerns contact, money, reputation, doing stuff (sending, promising, ordering, paying …) and facilitating stuff (maintaining bonds, oiling the wheels of social relations, setting up future dealings).
The context and what such things meant to the people concerned remains elusive, out of reach. The unknown unknowable resonance of that “by bread and salt” above is indicative. To say heartfelt about it is to admit to defeat on this.
For the Vindolanda letters, go to http://vindolanda.csad.ox.ac.uk
and also http://vto2.classics.ox.ac.uk/
Last updated: 23 June 2016