Long before the suits, skyscrapers, and "city boys," London was a place of business. And last week, archaeologists revealed the oldest written records discovered in the UK, giving a fresh insight into the life, work, and trade of Roman London.
Preserved in the muddy Thames clay, the team dug up 405 wooden tablets, the earliest of which dates back to the first decade after the Roman invasion in 43 CE. One tablet also features the earliest known reference to London, dated at some pointed between 65 to 80 CE – 50 years before the previously-thought first mention by the Roman historian Tacitus.
This tablet mentions the phrase "Londinio Mogontio," making it the earliest known mention of the place London. MOLA
The treasure trove was discovered during excavations for the new European headquarters of the financial media group Bloomberg, coincidently a modern-day recorder of finances in the hub of London’s business sector, a minute's walk from the Bank of England.
Sophie Jackson, archaeologist and director at the Museum of London Archaeology, who led the dig, said : "We always had high hopes for the Bloomberg dig, situated in the heart of the Roman and modern city and with perfect wet conditions for the survival of archaeology, but the findings far exceeded all expectations."
Among the business transactions, bills, and legal notes, the researchers revealed the names and lives of nearly 100 people, including a cooper, a brewer, a judge, slaves, freedmen, and soldiers. The archaeologists also discovered what they think is an example of someone practising writing the alphabet and numbers, suggesting the presence of the first known school in Britain.
This tablet is believed to show the start of the Latin alphabet, suggesting someone was learning the write. MOLA
“Through the writing tablets, we've been able to uncover some extraordinary information: facts about day-to-day transactions, thoughts, deeds, even the names of some of the Roman predecessors that have inhabited the site,” Jemma Read, head of Bloomberg Philanthropies, said in a video.
She added, “It’s been a process that’s really enabled us to hear the voices of the very first Londoners.”
The wooden tablets were originally covered in beeswax which has, understandably, degraded and been lost over the last couple of millennia. But occasionally, when people were writing into the wax, their scrawlings went through the waxy layer and marked the wood beneath. The tablets were regularly reused, so the wood would often be scarred with many layers of writing.
Decoding the tablets was, therefore, no small feat. The project required multi-directional light to accentuate the markings and microscopic analysis to make them perceivable. They managed to decipher and translate 87 of the tablets with the help of Dr. Roger Tomlin, a classicist and Latin expert. He remarked that it was "a privilege to eavesdrop" on the people of Roman London.
The full research is published in a book by the Museum Of London Archeology called “Roman London’s first voices: writing tablets from the Bloomberg excavations, 2010–14.” The artifacts will go on display in the new Bloomberg building next year.
The site of the excavation in the heart of London. MOLA