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  • Discover Our Land

More of Britain’s top treasures to go on display at Vindolanda

Updated: Nov 22, 2019

During the summer of 2017 Vindolanda archaeologists enjoyed one of their most successful research excavation seasons to date with the discovery of a hoard of wafer-thin ink on wood Vindolanda writing tablets.

After two years of careful conservation and painstaking research by a team of experts, the fascinating information contained within some of these documents has come to light resulting in the publication of a comprehensive article on the first four letters in the academic Journal Britannia due in November 2019.

The four published letters relate to Julius Verecundus, prefect of the First Cohort of Tungrians (modern day Belgium). This collection of correspondence both to and from Verecundus gives us an unparalleled insight into the daily life of a commanding officer stationed on the most northern edge of the Roman Empire nearly 40 years before the construction of Hadrian’s Wall.

Dr Roger Tomlin, one of the team of specialists who have analysed the text commented “deciphering Julius Verecundus’ letters has been a privilege: more than nineteen centuries later, to be looking over the Colonel’s shoulder as he deals with his correspondence – his vegetables and plant-cuttings, the wrong key, the missing knife, the pompous attempt by a fellow-colonel to get one of his sergeants into trouble. How lucky we have been”.

The contents of these new tablets are remarkable not because of any sensational statements or revelations but because of their unfiltered account of everyday life. The correspondence includes a complaint about an outburst of anger in the workplace and delivery arrangements for vegetables and other supplies to the frontier. Within the letters there are numerous individuals, all of whom originated from what is now modern-day Europe, including Masclus, a Decurion (cavalry detachment commander), who has appeared in several previously uncovered letters at Vindolanda, writing to different commanders, sometimes for more beer to be sent to his men and this time requesting leave from Verecundus for five other men.

We also can read correspondence referring to Crispus who is a mensor, a Roman land surveyor. Crispus’ duties may have included making maps, planning the course for roads and the layout of forts and camps. The friends of Crispus wrote to Verecundus, asking for a lighter military service. Perhaps Crispus is our nation’s first overworked town planner!

Dr Andrew Birley, CEO of the Vindolanda Trust commented “Writing tablets are not abstract things, they easily cross the great distance of time and cultures and the thing which stands out, apart from the sheer variety and detail, is the humanity of the people writing them. It is this humanity which allows us to really enjoy, marvel and understand the people of the letters. They are in that way, utterly amazing.”

The longstanding and constructive relationship between the Vindolanda Trust in Northumberland and the British Museum has been further strengthened by an agreement that enables recently discovered Roman writing tablets to remain at Vindolanda on a fixed term loan for further research and display. For the first time the public will be able to see these documents at Vindolanda in the Spring of 2020.

Patricia Birley, Chair of Impact for the Vindolanda Trust said “We are extremely grateful to the British Museum for facilitating a loan which enables the public to view these nationally and internationally important objects at their site of origin. The remaining tablets will also stay on loan at Vindolanda for further research.”

A specially designed case to house the new tablets will be housed in the same secure room in the Vindolanda Museum as a current display of nine tablets also on loan from the British Museum. Accompanying exhibition panels will highlight the messages from the tablets that shed even more light on life at Vindolanda some 2000 years ago.

The Vindolanda Trust is grateful to British Museum, tablet research group notably Professor Alan Bowman, Professor David Thomas and Dr Roger Tomlin and Northumberland County Council for their support to ensure that these extraordinary records of Roman life can remain on loan at Vindolanda for public information and enjoyment.

Cllr Cath Homer, cabinet member for Culture, Arts, Leisure and Tourism at Northumberland County Council said: “We are delighted to be able to support the Vindolanda Trust and provide funding for this internationally significant project to bring more of the Vindolanda Tablets to life for visitors."

Our own campaign Discover our Land is all about telling the stories about Northumberland, it’s people, it’s history and heritage and why it so special and the Vindolanda Tablets are some of the oldest and most fascinating stories the county has to share.”

Click here to find out more about Vindolanda's story

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