2000-Year-Old Roman Writing Tablets Reveal London's Early Years


Thousands of years before paper notepads were used, the ancient Romans who first founded and settled London recorded their day-to-day transactions—business dealings, food orders, and legal rulings—on wooden tablets. Yesterday, archaeologists announced they’ve discovered hundreds of these 2000-year-old documents in London’s financial district, the Associated Press reports. The logs include the oldest handwritten document ever found in Britain: a financial document dating back to January 8, 57 CE. Together, the tablets provide historians with new insight into the city’s early years as a thriving merchant town.

Archaeologists unearthed 405 tablets in London’s financial district, near the new European headquarters of media and data company Bloomberg. Underneath the construction site, National Geographic reports that excavators found an entire Roman street, dating back to the first century CE. With 3.5 tons of soil hand-excavated from the site, the dig swiftly turned into London’s largest-ever archaeological investigation. More than 50 Roman buildings and 15,000 artifacts were recovered, ranging from boots to jewelry, but it was the tablets that intrigued experts at the Museum of London Archaeology (MOLA).

Archaeologists wrapped up the excavation in 2014, and MOLA asked Roger Tomlin, an expert on early Roman writing, to decipher the ancient documents. Recently, the MOLA published translations of 88 legible tablets in a monograph called Roman London’s First Voices.

The translations provide “an incredibly rare and personal insight into the first decades of Roman rule in Britain,” museum officials say in a statement. The collection’s most impressive item might be its oldest tablet, the financial document from 57 CE. Another highlight is a document from 45–53 CE, the first decade of Roman rule in Britain, which contains the earliest-ever reference to London ("Londinio").

Romans founded London not long after invading Britain in 43 CE. Queen Boudicca razed the city during a Celtic rebellion in 61 CE, but it was quickly rebuilt. The tablets’ writings imply that London swiftly grew into a bustling metropolis. Some reference business deals, IOUs, and commercial deliveries.

The documents also offer a peek into the personal lives of ancient Romans. The names of more than 100 early Londoners are on the tablets. On one, a man named Atticus dramatically begs his correspondent to send him money: "I ask you by bread and salt that you send as soon as possible the 26 denarii in victoriati and the 10 denarii of Paterio." On another, someone practiced writing numbers and letters.

The tablets were once covered in beeswax, and writers engraved or inscribed letters on them using a stylus. While the wax didn’t survive the centuries, some of the letters had penetrated the wood, allowing Tomlin to string together letters and words into full sentences. And miraculously, the tablets were well preserved, thanks to a now-buried river called the Walbrook that once ran through the excavation site. Its damp mud kept oxygen away from the wood, preventing decay.

More than 700 artifacts—including Britain’s earliest writing tablet—will soon be on public display in London’s new Bloomberg Building. It officially opens to the public in Fall 2017. Learn more about the tablets in the video above, courtesy of Inside Bloomberg.

[h/t Associated Press]

Banner image courtesy of Museum of London Archaeology