Something to write home about…

Continuing with the building theme, we thought this week we would give you quick look at possibly one of the more interesting rooms we found.

It is often quite difficult on site to assign functions to buildings or rooms. Domestic set ups are possibly the easiest as you may encounter hearths or ovens accompanied by domestic pottery for food storage or consumption. Quality floor surfaces and walls with decorated wall plaster can be evidence of a nicely decorated home. Industrial areas can often be more difficult to pin point on site. Although tools are an indicator, such as those used in leather working, it is often the environmental samples that tell us what went on in any given space. For example, the trampled muck on top of the floor surface, or the piled up deposit in the corner of the room (essentially the rubbish bin) could contain debris from the industrial activity. This could be hammerscale from metal working; or grain from milling activities; or wood chippings from carpentry. Scraps of leather, fur or textile are usually spotted with the naked eye, however these again may not be picked up until samples of soil are analysed.

However we like to be different, and have one room that we possibly have identified the function of, or at least the last function of the room… you cannot assume buildings or rooms were used for only one activity during their existence.

Most people are aware of the hundreds of writing tablets we found on the site – it has been splashed across the news after all! However it’s not often you find so many in one space, over 10 fragments and complete tablets! Along with 5 styli and a seal box! And the room was only approximately 3m by 2m.

Writing room (c) MOLA 2013

The room. Visible are the timber base plates, the light coloured clay floor and a writing tablet in situ (right hand side)

All of these items were scattered on top of the lovely solid clay floor surface, underneath the demolition debris that covered the building after it had gone out of use. As such it led to only one conclusion on site; this must have been some kind of writing or scribe room. Not only that but our timber specialist suspects they may have been making writing tablets here, as a number of off cuts of the same type of wood (probably fir) were also found in the room. The writing tablets all were recessed pieces of wood that would have once contained wax. The styli, used to inscribe into the wax, were all simple copper designs. The seal box was also copper, and these were used to seal documents so that none but the intended recipient could read the contents. It has also been speculated though that these seal boxes were used to seal other things, such as goods.

Excavating the writing tablets and other finds from the room

Excavating the writing tablets and other finds from the room

Writing tablet in situ

Writing tablet in situ

It is not unheard of in the Roman world for individuals to be employed as a scribe or scriba. A Roman scriba worked for the government; their duties included keeping state records, recording oaths, making copies of documents and recording revenue. These were highly sought after positions and well paid. A scriba worked out of a aerarium, the public treasury within the government.

A reconstrcuted Roman writing tablet from the Museum of London (c) MOLA 2012

A reconstrcuted Roman writing tablet and stylus from the Museum of London (c) MOLA 2012

Although our writing room was nowhere near that prestigious, it is known that there were lower level private and military book keepers. The Vindolanda tablets contain fragments of household accounts and orders for building materials. So it is possible that this was the workshop of the local bookkeeper, making records for local businesses and personal documents for local people. Of course post-excavation analysis may change this hypothesis, but just perhaps, when the tablets from this room are cleaned and looked at, we will find orders for loaves of bread from the neighborhood bakery!

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