Roman wooden writing tablets were found by archaeologists buried in waterlogged ground just 400 metres east of St Paul’s Cathedral in London. The documents include probably the earliest manuscript ever found in Britain – and what may be the earliest surviving example of the name London. The discovery was made two years ago but since then the artefacts were kept under wraps as Britain’s top Latin experts undertook the painstaking work of transcribing and translating.
Key characters in the texts include Tertius the brewer, Proculus the haulier, Tibullus the freed slave, Optatus the food merchant, Crispus the innkeeper, Classicus the lieutenant colonel, Junius the barrel maker, Rusticus (one of the governor’s bodyguards) and, last but not least, Florentinus the slave. The manuscripts also give additional information on London’s political status. One particularly significant document, dated 22 October, 76 AD is a preliminary judgement made by an imperially-appointed judge. His presence in London demonstrates that the city was directly administered by the emperor.
The manuscripts also provide a number of tantalising vignettes of life in the provincial capital. Around 50 per cent of those documents, where the subject matter is known, refer to loans or debts. Other manuscripts are about freight transport and trade. One describes how a man called Taurus lost his draft animals – presumably oxen or horses. Another document is historically very significant because the information in it suggests that Queen Boudica’s revolt probably took place a year earlier (60 AD) than that stated by the Roman historian Tacitus. All the early Londoners and other British-based Romans mentioned in the newly studied documents are individuals who were previously unknown to history.
All the ancient documents, written between 43 AD and around 80 AD, were originally unearthed during a Museum of London Archaeology (MOLA) excavation (funded by the international financial news organisation, Bloomberg) in 2013 and 2014. Originally most of the wooden writing tablets were covered with blackened beeswax, with text inscribed into the wax with metal styluses. Although the wax hasn’t survived, the writing occasionally went through the wax to inadvertently mark the wood. As tablets were reused, in some cases several layers of text built up on the tablets, making them particularly challenging to decode. One of Britain’s top classicists and cursive Latin experts, Dr Roger Tomlin of Wolfson College, Oxford, deciphered and interpreted the tablets – often using specially lit photography and microscopic analysis.
Over 700 artefacts from the Bloomberg site excavation will be displayed in a public exhibition space that will sit within the new Bloomberg building, including the earliest-dated writing tablet from Britain. The permanent exhibition will also feature London’s Roman temple of Mithras and will open in autumn, 2017.