Outage at Vindolanda

Outage at Vindolanda

Yesterday, Wednesday 5 August, was not a good day for the WWW research team. A massive storm hit Connecticut and Emilia is in circumstances without power or Internet. Liz’s Edinburgh flat was flooded (again, it happened two years ago) by a burst water main some floors above. These of course pale into insignificance besides the horrors of what happened in Beirut.

Another small outage has also been in frame, because some work on the Roman Vindolanda letters and other documents has resumed with an article in mind.

At some point in the early second century A.D. In North Britain, the garrison stationed at Vindolanda, a fort near present-day Hexham and Corbridge, received its marching orders. The cohorts of legions stationed there, the Batavians and Tungrians, possibly by that point also Gauls, had to immediately remove to what is present-day Eastern Europe. The fort and its offices as well as the living quarters needed dismantling and anything valuable or needed removed, the rest destroyed. Immediately seems to have meant absolutely immediately. Buildings were half pulled down, rooms ransacked, papers burnt, remnants tipped into ditches and covered over. Among the many things in the ditches were hundreds, possibly thousands, of tilia, small postcard size slithers of bark written on in ink using a stylus. others were dumped at previous times when new building took place, some were used in the foundations for a variety of buildings and walkways. A large number are military documents, among them invoices, orders for goods, strength reports of different groups of soldiers; and also there are many, many letters, the detritus of eighty years of the fort being occupied and records kept. They should have been burned thoroughly, but inefficiency and haste and also recycling occurred then as now, with the result that, as the years pass and more excavation occurs, increasing numbers of them become available to researchers.

Rome over this period seems to have been an empire of letters, in which governance and rule were expedited through letter-writing of different kinds, a rapid communications technology that gave the Romans a distinct advantage over those they occupied. And rather than the sword, it was the invoice and sales list that figured large on a daily basis in their relationship with the local Britons. Hundreds of names appear, and writers span local traders, ordinary soldiers, officers of various kinds, women and children, as well as commanders and administrators. The level of literacy indicated is remarkable although not universal, and certainly everybody was part of the empire of letters and its system of governance.

Last updated: 6 August 2020