British archaeologists announced today the discovery of hundreds of wooden writing tablets from Roman Londinium – the ancient city that preceded today’s London. Among the treasures they found is the oldest extant handwritten document ever found in Britain, just one in trove that provides priceless insight into the earliest history of Britain and London as a commercial hub.
Excavators working with the Museum of London Archaeology found in excess of 400 wooden tablets while scouring the dirt in the financial district where the new headquarters of the Bloomberg data company will be built.
Of the dozens of tablets found, 87 have been translated. One of them, which is addressed "in London, to Mogontius" is believed to date from the years A.D. 65 to 80. This makes it the earliest known written reference to the city the Romans called Londinium.
Archaeologist Sophie Jackson said that it was hugely significant to read the words of the first generation of Londoners.
The Romans founded London after invading Britain in A.D. 43. Their settlement was later destroyed by the native Celtic forces led by the Iceni Queen Boudicca in A.D. 61. However, skilled Roman builders quickly put it aright.
The newly found tablets give indications that scant years after its founding, Londinium was thrumming with commercial activity on the part of merchants and traders, just as it is today. One tablet exhibits a contract from October 21, A.D. 62, to bring "twenty loads of provisions" from Verulamium - modern day St. Albans, Hertfordshire - to London, a year after the revolt by the Celts. Other tablets offer records of the delivery of beer, food, and legal rulings.
Another tablet bears the date of 8 January A.D. 57, thus making it the earliest dated hand-written document found in Britain. Translated, it has been found to be an ancient IOU in which a manumitted slave promises to repay another former slave. This tablet reads: " In the consulship of Nero Claudius Caesar Augustus Germanicus for the second time and of Lucius Calpurnius Piso, on the 6th day before the Ides of January (8 January AD 57). I, Tibullus the freedman of Venustus, have written and say that I owe Gratus the freedman of Spurius 105 denarii from the price of the merchandise which has been sold and delivered. This money I am due to repay him or the person whom the matter will concern..." No word was recorded as to whether the creditor was repaid. The consul to whom the letter referred was the Roman Emperor Claudius, who was brought to power in Roman in A.D. 41 and ruled until A.D. 54. He succeeded the perverted tyrant, Caligula, and was succeed by the equally infamous Nero, his grand-nephew. He is known to many through the excellent historical novel, "I, Claudius" by Robert Graves.
There is also a letter begging "by bread and salt" for a return of a favor in the form of the quick re-payment 26 denarii, with the warning that "they are boasting through the whole market that you have lent them money."
There also is tantalizing evidence that there was an early beer baron whose business empire stretched from London to Carlisle, Wales. There was also evidence of a military presence in Londinium, and that someone used the tablets to practice handwriting.
The treasure trove of wooden missives was preserved in the wet muck of the Walbrook. At the time of the ancient Romans and Celts, the Walbrook was a river. It is now a buried stream flowing through the midst of modern London. The anaerobic, oxygen-less conditions in the muck preserved the precious records in much the same way that the pumice and tephra that cover Italy’s Pompeii and Herculaneum preserved ancient murals and homes.
In practice, the Romans coated their tablets with wax and inscribed them with a sharp stylus so that they could be reused. The wax on the newly discovered tablets did not survive, but the cursive Latin writing in some cases penetrated the wax and went into the wood where it could be read.
Oxford University classicist Roger Tomlin said the tablets showed evidence of what he called the "carpet-bagging community" of Londinium. “It was the new wild west frontier of the Roman Empire, with people streaming in behind the Roman army and exploiting the new province," he said.
Nineteen tablets were found inside a wooden building, which some experts speculate could be the first known law office in the City of London.
The fragile records were kept in water after their discovery. They were then carefully cleaned and treated with a waxy preservative that replaced some of the water content and then freeze-dried. In 2017, more than 7000 artifacts discovered at the site will be displayed in an exhibition space in the new Bloomberg headquarters.