"It's absolutely incredible": Britain's oldest hand-written invoice found among hundreds of Roman tablets in London

By Ben Miller | 01 June 2016

Invoices, disputes, food orders and London's wax-etched messages from the north have been discovered in an incredible haul of writing tablets

This tablet is the earliest readable tablet, found in a layer archaeologically dated to AD 43-53, dating to the first decade of Roman rule© MOLA
The first known hand-written document from Britain and the earliest ever reference to London have been found etched through wax on a series of hundreds of wooden tablets preserved by the wet mud of the forgotten Roman river Walbrook on a City of London building site.

An invoice from January 8 AD 57, inscribed with a stylus on a rectangular tablet filled with blackened beeswax, has been pronounced the country’s earliest document during a dig which uncovered 405 tablets, many still bearing layers of faint text for archaeologists to decode. Only 19 legible tablets had previously been known from London.

“It’s essentially one merchant asking to be paid 105 denarii for goods delivered,” says Sophie Jackson, of the Museum of London Archaeology team which found more than 700 artefacts at the site of the new headquarters of financial powerhouse Bloomberg.

A tablet being conserved in a freeze drier© MOLA
“It’s absolutely incredible. We were hopeful with the Bloomberg site because it’s right in the heart of the Roman city of London.

“We knew from the site next door that a wooden writing tablet had been found and we were hopeful that we might get some more on the Bloomberg site – maybe three or four.”

More than 400 surfaced from the soggy remains of the lost river. “What we actually found completely blew us away,” says Jackson.

Cursive Latin expert Dr Tomlin writing on a reconstruction tablet© MOLA
“You never know quite what you’re going to find with archaeology. One of the most exciting tablets is an address dating from about 65-70 AD. It says Londinio Mogontio – to Mogontius in London. It’s the first time we have London mentioned ever in history.”

“There’s one tablet that refers to Julius Classicus, a figure known from Roman history who was in the Sixth Cohort of Nervians.”

An alliance of experts have already worked out the meaning of 87 of the tablets, including the names of more than 100 people who lived in Roman London, from a judge ordering a pre-trial to coopers and slaves.

After excavating more than 3,500 tons of soil to reveal dozens of Roman buildings and around 15,000 artefacts, conservators kept the tablets in water, replacing some of their content with a waxy substance and freeze-drying them. Lights from different directions cast shadows into the fine lines on the surface of the timbers, illuminating the sunken cores of the tablets where former Londoners would write through the wax.

Dr Roger Tomlin, a Classicist and authority on Cursive London, masterminded the interpretation of these tell-tale rectangles. “We know that London was completely destroyed by Boudicca. So was Verulamium St Albans in the year 61. And yet within a year or two we find one businessman writing to another, undertaking to deliver 20 loads of food stuffs,” he says.

“It does show a very rapid recovery – that’s an unexpected discovery to find among the tablets.

“Then there’s Junius, the cooper, who was making the barrels for the beer, presumably – cupano means a cask.

“Classicus is a well-known figure who ultimately turns out to revolt against Rome ten years later. And the two people concerned in the pre-trial, Litugenus and Magunus, are not Roman citizens. It’s the Roman government, if you like, providing a framework whereby probably Gallic businessmen can settle a dispute before a Roman court.”

Explaining cursive as “simply a grand term for a running hand”, Tomlin says his intricate work was a reminder of his own heroes – the academics whose efforts at wartime Bletchley Park proved so important.

Damien Goodburn, MOLA's ancient timber specialist, gets to work© MOLA
“I picked out about 100 tablets. We had a series of photographs taken with a diagonal, raking light. I combine these photographs in a fairly simple way: partly tracing, partly drawing.

“You have to have an imagination but you must control it very rigidly. It’s just the fun of deciphering puzzles. I do a lot of Sudoku and codeword, that sort of thing.”

Jackson describes the process as a sharp-eyed search for traces of 2,000-year-old marks. “The wax that was originally in the tablets is not there anymore, so what we’re looking for is the tiny little scratches which would be left after somebody had written the message with a stylus.

Luisa Duarte conserving a writing tablet© MOLA
“I don’t think there’s any kind of computer software that can replace what Roger does. It’s a massive combination of knowledge, experience and years and years of looking at these tablets.

“I can best describe it as codebreaking. The writing tablets are truly a gift for archaeologists trying to get closer to the first Roman Britons.”

The earliest previous mention of London came in Tacitus’ Annals, produced 50 years later.

A Roman barrel found nearby. These were recycled to create the tablets© MOLA
“There’s the hope of finding answers to questions about what was going on in the first years of Roman London,” says Dr Tomlin.

“I am so lucky to be the first to read them again, after more than 19 centuries, and to imagine what these people were like, who founded the new city of London. What a privilege to eavesdrop on them.”

One of the tablets, addressed to Tertius, a brewer, links London and Carlisle, at the western end of the northern frontier after AD 70. Analysts say the two settlements would have been in "constant communication".

The earliest tablet and many of the other artefacts will go on display in a public exhibition, London Mithraeum, opening inside the new building in autumn 2017.

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