New College of the Humanities

The Vindolanda Tablets: the oldest surviving handwritten documents in Britain

The newly refurbished Roman Vindolanda Museum opened last weekend. It will be home to nine of the Vindolanda Tablets, the oldest surviving handwritten documents in Britain, on loan from the British Museum.

On Saturday, March 12th, the Roman Vindolanda and Roman Army Museum on Hadrian’s Wall both re-opened following a major redevelopment programme. Most interestingly, nine of the Vindolanda writing tablets, until recently housed at the British Museum, were returned to Vindolanda where they were originally excavated in 1973.

The Vindolanda Tablets consist of a series of slivers of wood inscribed with official and private correspondences and drawings, including accounts, leave requests and other military documents. Believed to date to AD 121, the year before the construction of Hadrian’s Wall, the Vindolanda Tablets are considered the oldest surviving handwritten documents in Britain. Those on loan to the new Roman Vindolanda Museum include one of the renuntia, reports, which the deputy centurion regularly delivered to Flavius Cerialis, the prefect of the Ninth Cohort of Batavians stationed at Vindolanda, and an account for hobnails, salt, beer and pork, written between November or December 110 and February 111, which also names the consuls of the year 111. Another tablet is a fragment of a letter written to Flavius Cerialis from a fellow officer who is going to visit Vindolanda and asks Cerialis to arrange accommodation for himself and his horses. The tablets will be displayed in a new purpose built, temperature controlled room at the Roman Vindolanda Museum.

The site of Vindolanda was occupied by the Roman army in approximately AD 85 after the Governor Agricola had defeated the northern tribes at the battle of Mons Graupius. The fort at Vindolanda guarded the central section of the east to west supply route known as the Stanegate. When Hadrian’s Wall was constructed almost 40 years later, it became a wall fort. Built in timber, these early Roman forts had to be replaced every seven to eight years. Their remains now lie buried between two to six metres beneath the present turf and have been protected by the remains of later stone structures.

In Hadrian and the Limits of Empire from our 2008 archive, Neil Faulkner revisits the legacy of the emperor Hadrian.