It is one of an astonishing trove of 405 ancient Roman writing tablets unearthed during the construction of the new European headquarters for Bloomberg LP in the City of London. The three-acre (1.2-hectare) construction site along Queen Victoria Street rapidly grew into London’s single largest archaeological excavation of all time and exposed an entire Roman street scene from the first century A.D. that yielded thousands of exquisitely preserved personal artifacts, from leather boots and jewelry to this intriguing collection of personal correspondence, loan notes, bills of sale, and court documents, some featuring the names and addresses of the earliest Londoners.
Archaeologists completed their excavation work in 2014 and now, after two years of painstaking conservation and research, the Museum of London Archaeology (MOLA) has published a monograph Roman London’s First Voices, which containins translations of all 88 legible writing tablets and provides context for the early rough-and-tumble Roman frontier city of Londinium in which they were composed. (Read “London Dig Uncovers Roman-Era Skulls.”)
“It’s a bit like reading snippets of people’s emails,” says MOLA archaeologist Sophie Jackson, who supervised the excavation of the Bloomberg site. “My personal favorite was one that reads simply: ‘You will give this to Junius, the cooper, opposite the house of Catullus …’ That’s all that was legible, but it really captured my imagination: Some wealthy man named Catullus with a big landmark house and Junius the cooper, living across the street … It’s like someone today texting to a friend: ‘I’ll meet you outside the HMV store on Oxford Street.’ We think of it as our city now; we forget that it was once theirs.”
Many of the legible tablets that were found at the Bloomberg site are contracts or loan notes, supporting the description Tacitus gave in hisAnnals that early Londinium was “very full of businessmen and commerce”.
This fragment of a wooden tablet from A.D. 65 to 80 reads “Londinio Mogontio,” which translates to “In London, to Mogontius …“ and is the earliest reference to London, predating Tacitus’ mention in his Annals some 50 years later.
The tablets themselves are roughly the size of a modern iPad and appear to have been made out of recycled barrel staves. A shallow depression in the center would be filled with a thin layer of soot-blackened beeswax. Writers scratched their correspondence into the wax using a needlelike iron stylus as a pen.
The tablets spent the better part of 2,000 years buried in waterlogged soil at the Bloomberg site and the original wax surfaces have long since vanished, yet faint scratches in the wood left by the writers’ styluses remain. Identifying and deciphering the scratches was no easy task: Each tablet was digitally photographed four times under different lighting angles, and the four images were then superimposed to highlight marks on the wood surface.
“I, Tibullus, the freedman of Venustus have written and say that I owe Gratus, the freedman of Spurius, 105 denarii from the price of merchandise which has been sold and delivered …”
From there it was a matter of picking out these faint words, letters, and even parts of letters. It could take up to take a week to translate a single tablet. “If you like doing sudoku, you’d love doing this,” says Tomlin, who is one of only a handful of classical scholars who can read and translate the cursive-style Latin favored by London’s earliest scribes.
“I think if I had to pick my own favourite document, it would be that acknowledgement of owed money dated January 8, A.D. 57,” says Tomlin. “Not only is it the earliest dated document from Roman Britain, it was also comparatively straightforward to read. I am always very pleased when I come across one like that.”