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Revealed: Roman Londoners were first to send text messages on tablets 2,000 years ago!

PUBLISHED: 07:00 03 June 2016

Fragment of Roman text message

Fragment of Roman text message

MOLA

Experts churning up new evidence of how the first Londoners lived day-to-day in ancient Roman times have discovered their text messages written on tablets 19 centuries before today’s electronic digital versions.

Transcribed... Roman text message with writing stylus [photo: Julian Hill]Transcribed... Roman text message with writing stylus [photo: Julian Hill]

Archaeologists from east London have uncovered Britain’s earliest collection of writing tablets during excavations at the construction site for the new Bloomberg financial data organisation’s European headquarters in The City.

The first Roman Londoners used wooden tablets like paper for note-taking and for their financial accounts, correspondence and legal agreements, it has emerged.

More than 400 tablets have been unearthed from the site by the archaeologists from the Museum of London Archaeology, based in Shoreditch, with 87 messages having been deciphered so far. They provide an incredibly rare and personal insight into the first decades of Roman rule.

Classics and Latin expert Dr Roger Tomlin deciphered and interpreted the tablets using his encyclopaedic knowledge of Roman life, alongside photography and microscopic analysis to reconstruct the texts from their fragmented remains.

Classics expert Dr Roger Tomlin examines 2,000-year-old Roman text tabletClassics expert Dr Roger Tomlin examines 2,000-year-old Roman text tablet

“I’m lucky to be the first to read the messages again after 19 centuries,” he said.

“What a privilege to eavesdrop on them when I decipher their handwriting, to imagine what these people were like who founded the City of London.”

The earliest hand-written tablet is a financial document dated January 8, from the year AD57.

Another is a contract written on October 21, in the year AD62, to bring “20 loads of provisions” from Verulamium (St Alban’s) to London by November 13—a year after Boudicca’s Iceni British revolt, revealing details of the rapid recovery of Roman Londinium which had been burned to the ground by the native rebels.

Dr Tomlin tries out writing with stylus on reconstructed Roman tabletDr Tomlin tries out writing with stylus on reconstructed Roman tablet

One tablet has been archaeologically dated to the first decade of Roman rule in Britain, AD 43-53. Another has the earliest reference to London as a new city, AD65-80.

The collection also includes evidence of someone practicing writing the Roman alphabet and numerals—perhaps “the first school in Britain”.

Names of 100 people are recorded, from a cooper, brewer and judge, to soldiers, slaves and freedmen, revealing early London being inhabited by businessmen and soldiers, most likely from Gaul and the Rhineland.

The tablets of wood had recesses originally filled with blackened beeswax, with text inscribed into the wax by hand with styluses—not quite the ‘Qwerty’ keyboard of today.

Roman writing tablet... only frame remains, not the waxRoman writing tablet... only frame remains, not the wax

The wax hasn’t survived the last 19 centuries, but the writing occasionally went through the wax to imprint on the wood.

Several layers of text were found, as the tablets had been reused, making them a challenge for the Shoreditch archaeologists to decode.

“I think of my own heroes, the Second World War academics who worked at Bletchley Park (on breaking German codes),” Dr Tomlin adds.

The preservation of the tablets is itself remarkable, he points out, as wood rarely survives when buried in the ground. The muddy Walbrook, a tributary of the Thames that dominated the area in Roman times, is now buried underground—so ironically has stopped oxygen from decaying the wooden tablets, preserving them in perfect condition.

Archaeologist uncovers Roman text message slatesArchaeologist uncovers Roman text message slates

Archaeologist Sophie Jackson, the Museum of London Archaeology’s director, said: “The writing tablets are a gift for archaeologists to get closer to the first Londoners. We had high hopes for the dig in the heart of the Roman and modern City, with perfect wet conditions for the survival of these ancient artefacts—but the findings far exceeded all expectations.”

The fragile tablets were kept in water once excavated, before they were carefully cleaned and a waxy substance used to replace some of the water content before being freeze-dried to preserve them permanently.

They will be among 700 artefacts from the excavation going on public display when the new Bloomberg headquarters opens late next year.

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