A 2,000-year-old handwritten letter — the oldest ever discovered in Britain — was among the 405 documents from Roman London that were discovered by archaeologists on a dig site that will eventually become the new headquarters for media and data company Bloomberg.
The documents, which are actually wooden tablets that were originally covered in beeswax and written on with a sharp stylus, were discovered preserved in the mud of the Walbrook — once a river, now a buried stream — which was found underneath a 1950s office block in the financial district of London. The oldest wooden document dates to around 57 A.D., which makes it nearly 2,000-years-old. Though the beeswax once used to coat the tablets in order to inscribe on them has melted away with the years, many of the documents can still be deciphered through the faint stylus scratches in the wood.
London was founded by the Romans after their invasion of Britain in 43 C.E. Just a few years later, in 61 C.E., their settlement was destroyed by Queen Boudica’s Celtic rebellion, but it was quickly rebuilt in a few short years. When the oldest of these 2,000-year-old documents were written — less than 14 years after the Romans initially settling in London — their colony had already become a thriving hub of market and commerce, as is evidenced by some of the documents found in the dig.
— The Daily Progress (@DailyProgress) June 1, 2016
One particular letter — believed to be the oldest of the lot, dated January 8, 57 C.E. — was written from Tibullus to Gratus, both described as freed slaves, the former promising to repay the latter “105 denarii from the price of the merchandise which has been sold and delivered.” The Guardian describes this particular letter as not only the earliest dated tablet, but also the earliest discovered legal document from Roman London. Another tablet is inscribed “Londinio Mogontio,” which translates to “to Mogontius in London.” This document is dated 65-80 C.E. and is the earliest reference to the city of London — which the Romans called Londinium.
Sophie Jackson, one of the archaeologists involved in the London dig called the find “hugely significant,” and described the wood documents as “the email of the Roman world.”
“They represent the first generation of Londoners speaking to us.”
Much like the ashes of Mount Vesuvius perfectly preserved the ruins of Pompeii, Jackson said, so too the mud from the Walbrook helped preserve these 2,000-year-old documents.
“The water keeps out the oxygen that would normally cause decay. Our sticky Walbrook mud is like the ash of Pompeii or the lava of Herculaneum.”
— KPLU Public Radio (@KPLU) June 2, 2016
In all, 405 documents were discovered, 87 of which have already been deciphered by Roger Tomlin, an expert on early Roman writing. He concurs with Jackson on the discovery being a significant one, stating that these 2,000-year-old Roman London documents “give us a glimpse into a carpet-bagging community in the new wild west frontier of the Roman empire.” Tomlin has spent the last year deciphering the faint scratches on fir wood, that likely came from old barrels, recycled for the sole purpose of creating documents with them. He called the process of deciphering the ancient documents “fun,” according to the San Francisco Chronicle.
“You’re thinking your way into the hand of someone else who lived 1,900 years ago. Your eyes are setting foot where man has never been before, at least not for a very long time.”
This enormous trove of documents also marks the largest such find in London. Before now, only 19 legible tablets had previously been found across the city. Though it has taken a year to decode 87 of the four hundred and five 2,000-year-old documents discovered, Tomlin will continue to work on the rest, while archaeologists keep their fingers crossed that they will stumble upon more beneath the streets of London.
[Photo by Christopher Furlong/Getty Images]