Expensive tablets may be a must-have item for many people this Christmas, but those crafty Romans had an inexpensive, eco-friendly alternative for storing data and contacting their friends centuries before: the wax writing tablet! A number of these fragile wooden objects have been preserved thanks to the waterlogged nature of the archaeology along the Walbrook, and whilst cleaning, conservation and photography are ongoing, we thought we’d give you a quick look at these fascinating finds.
Made from the wood of the silver fir (Abies alba), these thin wooden ‘pages’ would typically have measured a pocket-sized 140 x 110 mm when complete. The central recesses, clearly visible on this example, would once have been filled with black wax.
These ‘pages’ would be bound together with cord. This was normally done in pairs, seen here in this pair from an earlier Walbrook dig (and currently on display in the Museum of London). The waxed sides would face inwards, protecting the text.
Here you can also see a copper-inlaid iron stylus, which would have been used to write on these tablets by scratching away the wax and exposing the wood beneath, creating clear white text on a black background. It also has a flat scraper end, for erasing unwanted text.
Two-part tablets like this are the most common type, used for letters or financial records, but multi-leafed ‘notebooks’ are also known, and special ‘triptych’ versions were used for legal documents. In these the text would be written out twice, with the inner copy sealed by witnesses and then closed. This could be used to verify the outer copy of the text if a dispute arose or someone attempted to tamper with it.
This recently found fragment has recesses on both sides, and so would have formed one of these documents.
Unfortunately, the waterlogged, anaerobic conditions required to preserve the wood of the tablets does not aid the preservation of the wax, and so most tablets are blank. Text is only visible when the stylus has scratched deeply into the wood below. These inscriptions are accidental, so often only parts of words or letters are impressed, and as the tablets are re-usable, inscriptions can be written over and distorted. This means that most are incomplete and indecipherable.
A notable exception is this stunning example, found in the Walbrook in the mid-1990s.
It is the only complete page from a ‘triptych’, measuring 140 x 114 mm, and contained a near complete inscription. Though it is barely visible to the naked eye, it was deciphered with a combination of enlarged high-quality photographs (taken from numerous angles under different light conditions, and with different filters applied) and microscopic analysis.
The full text reads:
VEGETVS MONTANI IMPERATORIS AVG SER SECVN
DIANI VIC EMIT MANCIPIQVE ACCEPIT PV
ELLAM FORTVNATAM SIVE QVO ALIO NOMINE
EST NATIONE DIABLINTEM DE ALBICIANO
EAQVE PUELLA DE QVA AGITVR SANAM TRADI
TAM ESSE ERRONEM FVGITIVAM NIN ESSE
PRAESTARI QVOD SI QV[.]S EAM PVELLAM DE
QVA AGITVR PAR…VE QVAM…
CERA QVAM PE…VM…
Or for those of us who can’t read Latin:
‘Vegetus, assistant slave of Montanus the slave of the August Emperor and sometimes assistant slave of Secundus, has bought and received by mancipium the girl Fortunata, or by whatever name she is known, by nationality a Diablintian, from Albicianus […] for six hundred denarii. And that the girl in question is transferred in good health, that she is warranted not to be liable to wander or run away, but that if anyone lays claim to the girl in question or to any share in her, […] in the wax tablet which has written and sworn by the genius of the Emperor Caesar […]’
Written in lower case cursive script in the late 1st or early 2nd centuries, it forms the contract for the sale of a Gallic slave-girl called Fortunata.
The contract assures that the purchaser, Vegetus (himself the slave of a slave of the Emperor), had purchased the girl fairly, and was able to claim reimbursement from the vendor if another person came forward with a stronger claim to her. It also promises that she was healthy and had no history of ‘wandering’ or running away.
This tablet offers a fascinating insight into the daily lives and morals of Roman London and its inhabitants, and given that hardly any historical documents mention ancient London (let alone named Londoners) it is an invaluable historical and archaeological resource. Another find of this quality would be exceptional (and unlikely), but hope remains high for the tablets being unearthed and conserved from this new phase of Walbrook excavations.
You can read more about this tablet (and the Poultry site in general) here:
R S O Tomlin, ‘The Girl in Question: a new text from Roman London’, Britannia 34 (2003), 41-51