Ancient Roman Letters Reveal Rather Familiar Requests For More Beer And Holidays

One of the tablets being cleaned. ©The Vindolanda Trust

A handful of letters from the first century CE have been unearthed at a fort along Hadrian's Wall in the UK. Far from the stuffy nature of many historical documents, these texts show the ancient Romans in a personal and bizarrely familiar light, including a request for leave from work. Previous tablets discuss a lost birthday invitation, a guy asking his boss for more beer, and somebody complaining about the condition of the roads.

The collection of 25 documents were found last month at Vindolanda in Northumberland. They consist of fragile postcard-sized pieces of wood, rarely more than 2 millimeters in thickness. The letters were discarded around the end of the first century. They remained relatively intact because they had been laying in anaerobic (low oxygen) soil, meaning there was a lack of microorganisms to biodegrade the wood.

The Vindolanda was a Roman fort built just south of Hadrian's Wall, a 117.5-kilometer-long (73-mile-long) defensive wall across the north of Britannia that was created to separate the Romans from the barbarians in the north (and George RR Martin's inspiration for Game of Thrones).

Experts are currently hard at work deciphering the contents of the texts, using infrared photography to reveal the full extent of what they say. 

“The tablets hold the accolade as being Britain’s Top Archaeological Treasure because they give us detailed personal accounts from a period of history that we know very little about,” Sonya Galloway, of The Vindolanda Trust, told IFLScience.

“There is no other evidence from this period that tells us what people are thinking and feeling... We have birthday party invitations, complaints about the state of the roads, and strength reports."

©The Vindolanda Trust

This site has been a goldmine for archaeologists since they began excavating in the 1970s. In 1992, the first “Vindolanda tablets”, similar tablets that also talk about everyday life in Roman Britain, were found.

Curiously, many of the names mentioned in the huge '92 cache of tablets can be found again in these new ones. One of whom is a man called Masculus. In the '92 tablets, he asked his Commanding Officer for more beer to be supplied to his outpost. In these new ones, he’s asking to go “on leave” for a break. Sounds like a hangover to me.

“We do not know if the rest of the archive will belong to Masculus or the person he is writing to," Galloway added. "We expect if it is the latter then we will pick up some of the wonderful characters we already know about and of course get to greet some wonderful new ones as well." 

“We will all have to wait for the full translations but there could be some sensational information in these new ones!”

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