The London Bloomberg site excavated in 2012 (Copyright MOLA)

Roman London’s first voices: the new Bloomberg writing-tablets

The Algarve Archaeological Association (AAA) will be presenting two lectures, in English, by Roger Tomlin on Tuesday, November 6. The first lecture will be at 2.30pm at the Museu do Traje in São Brás; the second at 6pm at the Convento de São José in Lagoa.

In this lecture, Roger Tomlin will be talking about the discovery, in 2010-2013, of a number of Roman writing-tablets on the site of Bloomberg’s new European headquarters during the excavations undertaken by Museum of London Archaeology (MOLA) in advance of its construction.

The Romans wrote with pen and ink on paper, just as we do (or did, in pre-computer days), except that their ‘paper’ was made of papyrus reed which grew only in Egypt. In consequence, they developed wood as an alternative medium, whether paper-like shavings for pen and ink, or thin boards which were coated with wax and inscribed with a writing-stylus.

The hundreds of ink ‘leaf’ tablets found at Vindolanda on Hadrian’s Wall (northern England) have made this fort famous, but only three such tablets have been found in London. However, many stylus tablets have been found in the bed of the Walbrook, a tributary of the Thames which divided Roman London, and they now include the 400 fragments excavated by Museum of London Archaeology (MOLA) on the site of Bloomberg’s new European headquarters.

The tablets are thin sheets of silver fir, trimmed into rectangles measuring c14cm by 10cm, which were neatly recessed on one face (or sometimes both) to take a thin coating of black wax. This was inscribed with a needle-pointed stylus, the other end of which was wedge-shaped to serve as an eraser. Mistakes could thus be corrected, and whole tablets could even be re-used. They were ideal for note-taking and memoranda including legal documents, for keeping accounts (there is one for deliveries of beer) and especially for letter-writing.

Two tablets could be hinged together, then tied up and sealed, which would protect the waxed inner faces and enable the address (eg “Give this to Junius the cooper, opposite the house of Catullus”) to be scratched on the plain wooden exterior.

The only drawback is that the waterlogged, anaerobic conditions which preserve the wood from decay almost always dissolve the wax coating. The text has to be recovered from the scratches left in the wood by the stylus, a visual exercise as fascinating as breaking the Enigma ciphers, but impossible if the scribe did not press hard enough or created a palimpsest by re-using a tablet.

Only about 90 Bloomberg tablets are actually legible. But since they belong to strata from the period cAD50-90 and sometimes are even internally dated – notably an acknowledgement of debt dated 8 January 57 – they provide unique written glimpses of the immigrant businessmen, soldiers and administrators who founded London on a virgin site which was uninhabited before the Romans invaded Britain in AD43.

Roger Tomlin read Classics at Oxford University after which he taught at other universities, before returning to Oxford as lecturer in Late-Roman History. He retired in 2010 but has continued to be editor of Roman Inscriptions of Britain, responsible for publishing new inscriptions each year in the journal Britannia.

This brought him the opportunity of studying the largest collection of Roman stylus tablets ever found in Britain, now published as Roman London’s first voices:Writing tablets from the Bloomberg excavations, 2010-14 (Museum of London Archaeology, 2016). He has also just published Britannia Romana: Roman Inscriptions and Roman Britain (Oxbow Books, 2018).

Non-members are welcome to attend AAA lectures for a €5 admission, with all money raised by the AAA being spent on archaeological grants and speakers.

For more information contact algarvearchass@gmail.com, visit arquealgarve.weebly.com or Facebook ‘Algarve Archaeological Association’. Check the website or Facebook page for any last minute changes.

By JANE ROBERTSON

Reconstruction of Bloomberg Tablet WT 44 dated 8 January AD57 (Copyright MOLA)
Bloomberg Tablet WT 14 with a 2-line address (Copyright MOLA)
The London Bloomberg site excavated in 2012 (Copyright MOLA)