UK's Oldest Hand-Written Document Found

The Roman wooden tablets date to 57 A.D. -- a period when London was a brand new city.

<p>Credit: MOLA</p>

New research into hundreds of Roman wooden tablets uncovered during an archaeological dig in London has revealed the oldest hand-written document in Britain.

A record of money owed, the tablet bears the date January 8, 57 AD. It was written by "Tibullus the freedman of Venustus" who owed "Gratus the freedman of Spurius" some money – " 105 denarii from the price of the merchandise which has been sold and delivered."

The nearly 2,000-year-old tablet is one of 405 rectangular wooden pieces discovered during excavation at Queen Victoria Street, the site of Bloomberg's new European headquarters in London.

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"These tablets are truly a gift for archaeologists trying to get closer to the first Roman Britons," archaeologist Sophie Jackson, director at the Museum of London Archaeology (MOLA), said.

Such tablets were originally filled with blackened beeswax, with text inscribed into the wax with styluses.

"Romans all over the Empire used waxed writing tablets like paper, for note-taking and accounts, for correspondence and for legal documents," MOLA said in a statement.

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The tablet preservation is remarkable, as wet mud of the Walbrook, a river that dominated the area in the Roman period but is now buried, stopped oxygen from decaying the wood.

Classicist and cursive Latin expert Roger Tomlin deciphered 87 tablets. The scholar was able to read the text even though the wax was long gone since the writing occasionally went through the wax to inscribe the wood.

"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," Tomlin said.

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The brief written accounts offer a rare insight into London during the first 40 years of its existence.

The tablets reveal the names of nearly 100 people, from a barrel-maker, brewer and judge, to soldiers, slaves and freedmen, showing the city was first inhabited by businessmen and soldiers, most likely from Gaul and the Rhineland.

One tablet features the earliest reference to London, predating Tacitus' mention of the city by 50 years.

Dated AD 65/70-80, it reads "Londinio Mogontio," which translates to In London, to Mogontius (a Celtic personal name).

Another tablet was archaeologically dated to AD 43-53, the first decade of Roman rule in Britain.

Its translation reads "...because they are boasting through the whole market that you have lent them money. Therefore I ask you in your own interest not to appear shabby..."

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Intriguingly, a tablet shows letters of the alphabet: "ABCDIIFGHIKLMNOPQRST"

Experts believe it represents the efforts of someone practicing writing.

"Perhaps it is the first evidence for a school in Britain," MOLA said.

The tablets, along other artifacts from the excavation, will be displayed within the new Bloomberg building in autumn 2017.

Meanwhile, in-depth research into the hand-written texts has been published in a new book from MOLA, Roman London's first voices: writing tablets from the Bloomberg excavations, 2010-14.