Britain's Oldest Handwritten Documents Discovered At London Building Site

Posted: Jun 5 2016, 10:06am CDT | by , Updated: Jun 5 2016, 7:44pm CDT, in News | Latest Science News


Britain's Oldest Handwritten Documents Discovered at London Building Site
The site of Bloomberg headquarters in London, where the tablets were discovered. Credit: MOLA

2,000-year-old ancient Roman writing tablets shed light on the day to day life of early inhabitants of London.

Archeologists have discovered hundreds of ancient writing tablets during the excavation of a London building site. Some of them are up to 2,000 years old, making them the oldest handwritten documents ever found in Britain.

Of the 410 wooden tablets uncovered, 87 have been translated into English to understand what those texts mean. One of the tablets even contains the word “London” and is dated A.D. 65-80. It is the earliest written reference to the city. The previous oldest reference to London came 50 years later by historian Tacitus. 

The documents probably reflect the legal and business dealings from ancient Roman inhabitants because one of the tablets includes a financial document dating back to January 8, 57 A.D. – the first decade of Roman rule in Britain. 

The documents are in the form of thin tiles and were covered in blackened beeswax in ancient times. The words could be engraved on it with the help of stylus, a small writing tool. While the wax has been disintegrated but some of the writing which was penetrated to the wood can still be read. The wooden tablets remained preserved in the wet mud of then river Walbrook until now. They were recovered during the construction of Bloomberg’s new European headquarters in the city of London.

“The tablets are hugely significant, they are the largest single assemblage of wax writing tablets found in Britain and what’s particularly special about them is they are so early. It’s the first generation of Londoners speaking to us.” Sophie Jackson, archaeologist from Museum of London Archeology (MOLA) who led the dig said

The tablets also contain the names of dozens of people belonging to different professions and sects of society and they are probably communicating their clients though those wooden writing tablets, making them “the email of the Roman world.”

“It’s a bit like reading snippets of people’s emails,” said Jackson. “My personal favorite was one that reads simply: ‘You will give this to Junius, the cooper, opposite the house of Catullus…’ That’s all that was legible, but it really captured my imagination.”

The site has also yield a number of intriguing personal artifacts including wicker baskets, coins, pottery, wood and leather boots and jewelry. All are remarkably well preserved after being trapped in soaking mud for years.

The excavation works was completed in 2014 and now after two years a monograph comprising translations of all 88 legible writing tablets has been published.  

More than 700 artifacts from the site, including Britain’s oldest handwritten documents, will be displayed late next year at the new Bloomberg building.

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Hira Bashir covers daily affairs around the world.




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