On January 8, 57 AD, Tibullus, a freed slave in London, promised to repay 105 denarii, a hefty sum, to another freed slave named Gratus. Meanwhile, one friend admonished another that he’s lent too much money and is being gossiped about. And a merchant was making a desperate plea for repayment of debts owed to him.
We know all this, thanks to an archeological treasure recently unearthed, as reported by Atlas Obscura: over 400 writing tablets that document financial transactions that are the oldest handwritten documents discovered in England.
Notekeeping, the Roman Way
As befits a business people, Romans founded London around 40 AD in order to facilitate commerce. And commerce means records. When recording something for posterity, the Romans used parchments made of leather. For day-to-day records, though, these were prohibitively expensive and hard to erase. So, they covered flat pieces of wood – usually recycled barrel staves – with black beeswax and scribbled on them using a stylus, not unlike today’s pens. These could easily be erased and reused. If someone had a heavy hand, though, they ended up scratching the surface of the slab. It is these scratchings, combined with modern photography, that allow us a rare view into a strangely familiar world.
The tablets were found in the mud under a 1950s office building, the future site of a fancy new Bloomberg headquarters in London. Scientists kept them in water, before cleaning and freeze-drying them for preservation. To read the messages preserved on the wood, researchers had to take digital photographs of the tablets from multiple angles, then overlay them so that the marks would emerge more clearly.
Eighty-seven of the tablets have been deciphered so far, and they include the first ever written reference to London.
A Birthday Invitation
The discovery follows that of some 400 wood tablets with correspondence found in the house of the Roman commander, Flavius Cerealis, prefect of the Ninth Cohort, at the site of Roman army camp just south of Hadrian’s wall, in the north of England. Remarkably, the tablets are only 1-3 mm thick, about the size of a modern postcard.
The tablet above invites the commander’s wife, Sulpicia Lepidina, to her sister’s birthday party:
On 11 September, sister, for the day of the celebration of my birthday, I give you a warm invitation to make sure that you come to us, to make the day more enjoyable for me by your arrival. […] Give my greetings to your Cerialis. My Aelius and my little son send him their greetings. I shall expect you, sister. Farewell, sister my dearest soul, as I hope to prosper, and hail.
This tiny scrap (it’s 223 mm wide, or 8.7″) contains not just a two-millennium-old text message sent between two sisters, but is also one of the oldest surviving specimens of a woman’s handwriting, which makes the tiny scrap even more memorable.
Another kind of treasure
Meanwhile, a construction crew discovered some 1,300 pounds of ancient Roman coins in Southern Spain. These were minted with the likeness of the emperors Maximian and Constantine, and stored inside 19 amphoras – sealed jug-like containers that usually contained wine or oil.
The coins were buried just about a yard beneath the earth in Tomares, outside of Seville, according to Atlas Obscura. They will likely go on display in the Seville Archaeological Museum.
You can find out more about Roman note-keeping and medieval books on Erik Kwakkel’s Medieval Books. Erik Kwakkel is a book historian and lecturer at Leiden University. His blog brings the world of medieval manuscripts to life in a wonderful way.
This post is part 3 of a multi-part series of posts on ancient and Medieval wonders, to celebrate my 99c Pearseus: Rise of the Prince promo. As Pearseus has been described as “Ancient Greece in space,” it seemed strangely appropriate.