New Work on the Vindolanda Writing Tablets

The unique collection of Latin writing-tablets from Vindolanda, a Roman military post to the south of Hadrian's Wall, continues to grow. Following the publication by Dr. A.K.Bowman and Professor J.D.Thomas of the ink tablets discovered by Robin Birley in excavations during the 1970s and 1980s, a further four seasons of excavation by Robin Birley in 1991-4 have yielded new discoveries, which have now joined their predecessors in the British Museum's collection. The total product consists of several hundred pieces or fragments of ink tablets and some tens of stilus tablets, some with clearly visible and substantial texts. A rough estimate is that the material of the 1990s amounts to between 60 and 70 substantial ink texts. As in the earlier campaigns, the tablets come from the pre-Hadrianic areas at the south-west corner of the third century fort. The new ink tablets, of which some examples are described below, consist of much the same range and type of material as was discovered in the 1970s and 1980s, although no literary or shorthand texts have so far been identified. Letters and accounts predominate and many of the tablets evidently come from the period III praetorium, the residence of Flavius Cerialis, prefect of the cohors IX Batavorum, a unit raised in the Netherlands, during the period c.AD 97-104. New chronological evidence shows that the Batavian unit remained in occupation at Vindolanda until early or mid-104. Many of the tablets were found in the courtyard of the commander's residence where a bonfire had been made to destroy out-of-date documents when the time came for the unit to move on. Their survival is at least in part part due to the probability that the fire was put out by rain before the tablets were consumed. The writing-tablets offer a wealth of further detail on the lives of the officers and soldiers (and their families) stationed at Vindolanda in the period just before the construction of Hadrian's Wall. The new tablets were the subject of two events at the Centre early in the year. On 25 January, Dr. Bowman inaugurated the Centre's regular seminar series with a presentation of two new accounts and on 23-24 February Dr. Bowman and Professor Thomas held a two-day workshop for a small group of invited specialists from Oxford and other British Universities. The texts discussed included two accounts of particular interest. One, which consists of at least three diptychs, is much the longest text yet found. It is concerned mostly, if not entirely, with poultry, chickens (pulli) and geese (anseres), used in the commanding officer's residence. The first section records receipts, either of poultry or of payment for it, and the second outgoings over a period of more than two years in AD 102-4. The format of this account is also important: the diptychs can be shown to have been joined together in concertina fashion, with writing on both the front and the back.

A second account (see illustration above) is valuable because it records unit prices as well as totals for the items recorded, e.g. 10 lumbaria ("drawers") at 2 1/2 denarii each, totalling 25 denarii. It also has several notations of fractions of a denarius, using symbols which are not found elsewhere in Latin. Among the various items are several concerned with horses, notably a saddle (scordiscus, a word not found in classical Latin) and reins (freni), as well as infiblatoria, a word new in Latin and meaning cloaks fastened with a fibula, quantities of hair for uses which are not specified, skillets (trullae) of differing value and different coloured vela (curtains). Two important letters are preserved almost complete. One is from Maior to Maritimus and concerns business matters, probably involving cereal (bracis) and something called a fussa, which may be a form of the word fusus, meaning "spindle", perhaps part of a mill. There is an interesting reference to Caesariani, presumably imperial freedmen. At the end the writer states that he was "warming the bed" ("lectum calfaciebam") while writing this letter. In the other, a decurion writes to the cohort commander addressing him Ceriali regi suo, a formulaic address to be taken as indicating that Cerialis was his superior and patron, despite the tempation to interpret regi literally in view of the fact that, as Tacitus tells us, Batavian tribal units were habitually commanded by their own nobles. Dr. Bowman and Professor Thomas, working in Oxford and Durham respectively, hope to complete the edition and publication of the new ink texts within the next three or four years. It is also hoped that substantial progress can be made, with the collaboration of Dr. R.S.O.Tomlin of Wolfson College, in reading the much less legible texts on the stilus tablets.
Alan Bowman

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Ancient Documents Old and New

The Centre's seminar series on "Ancient Documents Old and New" began with four well-attended papers in Hilary Term on topics ranging from a Vindolanda poultry account, through fourth-century Athenian inscriptions and carbonised papyri from Herculaneum, to lead curse tablets from the Cotswolds. The diversity of the papers reflects the range of interests of scholars working at the Centre.
The Newsletter will carry as a regular feature summaries of research papers given at the Centre. For this issue, we have brief reports on the first series of seminars.

New Texts from Vindolanda
Epigraphy and the Second Athenian Confederacy
A New Fragment of Eumelos
Some Romano-British Curse Tablets

New Texts from Vindolanda

(A.K. Bowman, 25 January)

Dr. Bowman presented two susbstantial new accounts found during the 1993 season of excavations at Vindolanda. For a full report, see the previous item on Vindolanda.

Epigraphy and the Second Athenian Confederacy

(C.V. Crowther, 8 February)

We depend fundamentally for our knowledge of the Second Athenian Confederacy on the evidence of inscriptions. The best of this evidence is very good. IG, II(2), 43, the Decree of Aristoteles, which preserves the Charter of the Confederacy, has been described as "the most interesting epigraphical legacy of fourth-century Athens". Many texts are less well preserved, however, and even IG, II2, 43 has its lacunae and difficulties. The paper presented to the seminar concentrated on two items in the epigraphical record, one a controversial passage in IG, II(2), 43 itself, the other a severely eroded document that preserves the only surviving example of a decree of the Synhedrion of Athens' allies in the Confederacy.

The main section of IG, II(2), 43 begins with a statement of the purpose of the Confederacy in two parts. The second part of this statement was subsequently revoked and its formulation erased from the surface of the stone in lines 12-14. Early editions of the text noted traces of letters within the erasure, but offered no continuous reconstruction. In 1941 S. Accame published a history of the Confederacy (La lega Ateniese del sec. IV a.c., Rome 1941) based on a thorough re-examination of the available epigraphical evidence in which he offered a complete reading of lines 12 and 14 and plausible restorations for line 13. Accame's reconstruction of the erasure was widely accepted until it was challenged by J. Cargill in his 1981 book on the Confederacy (The Second Athenian League, Berkeley 1981), which included a thorough and detailed revision of the text of IG, II(2), 43 based on autopsy and a squeeze made in the 1950s. The Centre's squeeze collection includes two complete squeezes of IG, II(2), 43 made before the Second World War and it seemed worthwhile to use them to re-examine the disputed passage and at the same time to evaluate the assistance that could be provided to epigraphers by the image bank project in verifying readings of difficult and disputed texts. The squeezes were examined directly and were also scanned at a resolution of 300 dpi using the Centre's flatbed scanner. Lower resolution images of the whole inscription based on these scans are available from the Centre's WWW site (URL:

A grid corresponding to the stoichedon pattern was superimposed on the scanned image of the erasure in Adobe Photoshop (as in the illustration below) and the image was then adjusted for contrast and magnified to verify readings suggested by direct examination of the squeezes. The result of this re-examination was to corroborate Accame's readings of lines 12 and 14 against the doubts expressed by Cargill and others, and also to suggest possible additional readings and a more secure restoration for line 13.

The second section of the paper was devoted to a re-examination of another inscription whose text had substantially been revised and reconstructed in Accame's book on the Confederacy. EM 12821 preserves the end of an Athenian decree and the beginning of a resolution of the Synhedrion of Athens' allies dealing with a settlement (diallagai) on Paros. The inscription has recently been revised for a second time by M. Dreher in his book on relations between Athens and its allies in the Confederacy (Hegemon und Symmachoi, Berlin 1995). Dreher's new text corrects Accame's in two important details, but leaves Accame's reconstruction of the allied resolution almost unaltered. A new reading, based on a re-examination both of the stone and of squeezes taken from it, was presented to the seminar. Digitised images were not used in this revision, although further reconstruction of the text may benefit from the results of other work on image enhancement being carried out in the Centre. The result of the revision is to demonstrate that the current text of the allied resolution (as reproduced in SEG, XXXI, 67) can no longer stand. The alternative reconstruction proposed offers a more plausible form for the beginning of the allied resolution, closely paralleled in other similar documents dealing with internal settlements elsewhere, and establishes the primary declared purpose of the settlement as the restoration of harmony among the citizens of Paros.
Charles Crowther

A new fragment of Eumelos recovered from carbonised papyri

(D. Obbink, 15th February)

Dr. Obbink gave an outline of the history of the discovery, (partial) recovery, recording, treatment and decipherment of the carbonised papyri from Herculaneum, before presenting to the seminar a fragmentary papyrus preserving a rare testimonium and implicit citation from the work of the Corinthian poet Eumelos, a possible contemporary of Homer. A fuller account of this discovery will appear elsewhere

Some Romano-British 'Curse Tablets'

(R.S.O. Tomlin, 29 February 1996)

Curse tablets are texts inscribed on lead which invoke supernatural powers against other people. In Britain the victims are often thieves; this text from Bath is typical:
'Docilianus to the most holy goddess Sulis. I curse him who has stolen my caracalla [hooded cloak], whether man or woman, whether slave or free. May the goddess Sulis inflict him with the greatest death, and not allow him children now or in the future, until he has brought my caracalla to the temple of her divinity'.
It contains turns of phrase or formulas found in British curse tablets, which can be paralleled outside Britain in curses and in religious or legal texts. The thief (or sometimes the stolen property) is 'given' to the god in a donatio, and is to have no health until he makes restitution. The property stolen is often specified, but not of course the thief himself; instead, his name is cursed, or there is a list of suspects. Often the unknown thief is exhaustively described in quasi-legal terms, 'whether slave or free' being a favourite formula. These British curses are thus much closer to petitions than to magic spells.

The first British curse tablet was found in 1805 at Lydney, and two more at Bath in 1880; but until the late 1970s only some fifteen were known. The situation was then transformed by two major excavations, at the temple of Mercury at Uley (Glos.) in 1977-9, and the sacred Spring of Sulis at Bath in 1979, which yielded some two hundred texts. The grand total is about 250 texts, thanks to the recent use of metal detectors, all of them found in southern Britain and especially in the Gloucestershire-Avon-Somerset area, The writing is often cursive, which in itself is not difficult to read with experience, but is usually damaged by corrosion and the rolling and unrolling of tablets. This handwriting is the only dating evidence, and ranges from the second century to the fourth. The texts themselves are a major source of the Latin current in the civil province of Britain.

The third largest collection from Britain, eight unpublished tablets, are metal-detector finds from an unexcavated temple site in the Cotswolds. The two longest texts were presented to the Seminar. They are both addressed to the god Mercury, and use related formulas against two unknown thieves, one of a cloak, the other of some coins. Mercury is typically asked to punish the latter, to seek out the property, and meanwhile to prevent him from standing or lying, drinking or eating.
Roger Tomlin

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This page was created on 18 April 1996