New Letters Found at Famed Roman Britain Fort

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July 13, 2017

Archaeologists have unearthed new letters written nearly 2000 years ago at a Roman Britain fort.

The letters were at the site of Vindolanda, once a Roman fort just south of Hadrian's Wall, far to the north of what is now Northumberland but was then part of the Roman Empire. Roman troops were stationed at Vindolanda for several centuries, beginning in the 1st Century A.D.; the fort continued to serve as a form of northern watch for decades after the Romans left, in the 5th Century A.D.

Excavations at the site have revealed vast troves of archaeological treasure, including the famed Vindolanda Letters, a now-growing collection of communications between soldiers and their families, soldiers and other soldiers, and Romans and non-Romans. Unusually for the time, the discovered letters, were written in ink on wood. (The usual practice was to scratch words and images onto wax tablets.)

The Romans at Vindolanda used local wood–alber, birch, and oak–and ink made from carbon, gum arabic, and water. The tablets, the size of a modern postcard, were scored down the middle and then folded to form a diptych, so they folded up, to protect the writing inside. Among the previously found tablets was a birthday party invitation, from one commander's wife to another, the oldest known example of writing by a woman yet found in Europe.

The newest additions to the collection include requests for supplies, including beer, and a request from one soldier, to his commander, seeking a leave of absence from the fort and his duties.

Archaeologists said that the letters had been discarded, along with other items viewed as trash, and had been trapped by so much dirt through the years that the wooden tablets were very well preserved by the elements. 

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