The Vindolanda letters

The Vindolanda letters

(First hand) … You ought to decide, my lord, what quantity of wagons you are going to send to carry stone for the century of Vocontius … on one day with wagons … (Second hand) Unless you ask Vocontius to sort out the stone, he will not sort it out. I ask you to write back what you want me to do. I pray that you are in good health.

(TV 316) [nb … indicates sections missing from the original because of the fortunes of time]

Glimpses of other lives, different from our own, are always fascinating. And how people choose to represent themselves and others is even more so. In this letter, now missing some short sections, a man who was most likely a centurion in charge of some building work at a Roman fort is asking another military officer to make a decision about transporting stone being cut by a detachment of auxiliary legionaries under a century commanded by Vocontius.

Unusually in modern eyes, there are two handwritings visible on the original, one for the main text and another for the closure statement and brief salutation at the end. One is that of the scribe, the writer; and the other that of the author, who most likely dictated the content orally. Implicitly, the decision was tardy because Vocontius would not sort things out unless he was prompted; the author was annoyed, with the tone of the closing and salutation indicating this; and a response was anticipated.

This ‘you ought to decide‘ letter is all about the work being undertaken and how to do this expeditiously. It is one among many hundreds of documents which together shine a new light on a crucial period of British history, not long after its conquest by the Roman Empire. Around 800 Roman era tilia – writing tablets made from folded slivers of wood veneer and a little over postcard-size – have been uncovered in successive archaeological investigations at Vindolanda, and dated to the period CE 85-130. Vindolanda was situated on the Stangate, a system of linked Roman forts and settlements that preceded Hadrian‘s Wall in Northern England and some miles south of the present border with Scotland, near modern-day Corbridge. The large number of tablets found, with new ones discovered on each dig, the range of documents involved, along with the many different handwritings and varied contents, covering many aspects of life at the time not previously known about, are all distinctive.

The tilia have been made available in photographs and  transcriptions in an online beta-edition which builds on print publications, and two now superseded previous online incarnations. They have been classified by Vindolanda project palaeographers/epigraphers as a mixture of literary texts, military reports, accounts and lists, letters, and fragmentary otherwise unclassifiable pieces of tablets termed descripta. Although some wax stylus tablets have been found, the large majority are wood veneer tablets written on in ink with a split nib probably made from quill, and mainly taking the form of linked diptychs, each with a hole, which would have been tied together with cord.

The letters among them are the majority. They are fascinating to read, as lively accounts that provide many human insights into the how their authors saw the world they lived in and represented it to and about a wide variety of other people, including friends, fellow messmates, craftsmen, slaves, friends, children, commanding officers, civilian traders, ordinary soldiers and more. Many hundreds of named people can be identified together with activities they were involved in and how they were writing to others.

Their existence as well as their content overturns many assumptions about this period concerning writing, about literacy and who wrote or read and who did not, about the reach and importance of written communication, and also about different forms or genres of writing and the ways in which they were written. They also raise important questions about letters of the past and how to get an analytical purchase on the similarities to and also the large differences from those of the present.

An article on this has just been completed and sent off to a journal. So there will be more on the Vindolanda letters and other documents in due course, after its fate has been decided.

Last updated: 3 September 2020