A team of archaeologists has uncovered several hundred writing tablets in London, dating back to the time when the city was part of the Roman Empire. Among the finds are notes, bills and contracts nearly 2,000 years old, including what experts believe is the oldest handwritten document in all of Britain. The discovery, according to the researchers, provides valuable information about Roman London and its history as a major commercial center.
As the team from Museum of London Archaeology point out, as many as 400 waxed writing tablets were unearthed during excavation works at the capital city’s main financial district. The site was being prepped for the construction of new headquarters of data and media company Bloomberg. Of the 400 wooden tables, around 87 have already been successfully deciphered.
One of the documents, dated 65-80 AD, contains the inscription “in London, to Mogontius”, which is quite possibly the oldest written reference to London. Originally called Londinium, the city was founded by Romans in about 43 AD. Although it was destroyed in a revolt led by Queen Boudica in 61 AD, it was soon rebuilt and went on to become a thriving commercial hub in Roman Britain. Speaking about the discovery, Sophie Jackson, a member of the research team, said:
It’s the first generation of Londoners speaking to us.
The documents retrieved from the site contain details about beer deliveries, legal rulings and food orders in London, some 2,000 years ago. One such tablet, dated January 8, 57 AD, is likely oldest known handwritten document in all of Britain. According to the archaeologists, it is an ancient IOU by a freed slave, bearing the promise to pay back “105 denarii from the price of the merchandise which has been sold and delivered”. As the researchers explain, the tablets remained preserved in the wet mud surrounding Walbrook, a subterranean river that once flowed through the middle of London. Jackson added:
The water keeps out the oxygen that would normally cause decay. Our sticky Walbrook mud is like the ash of Pompeii or the lava of Herculaneum.
Writing tablets, like the ones discovered in London, were in common use during Roman times. They were first dipped in wax, onto which words were etched with the help of a stylus. While the wax has washed away in the years since then, much of the writings on the wood have survived in surprisingly good condition. Classical expert Roger Tomlin, who helped decipher the documents, said:
You’re thinking your way into the hand of someone else who lived 1,900 years ago. Your eyes are setting foot where man has never been before, at least not for a very long time.