In the largest find of Roman archaeology in Great Britain ever, archaeologists have discovered more than 400 documents from the 1st century that date back to life in Roman London, including the oldest handwritten document ever found in England. These documents speak to us, and tell us a story of a bustling center of Roman trade.
London’s Museum of Archaeology’s researchers have been able to decipher 87 of these documents so far, dated to AD 65-80. It’s an incredible find. These documents contain the earliest written reference to London, or, as the Romans called it “Londonium.”
These tablets were found in the buried stream of Walbrook, which, at the time of their writing, had been a rushing river. The water had sealed the documents in the mud, safe from decay. Like the preservative ash of Pompeii, the mud essentially fossilized the tablets. Originally, they were covered in wax which the words would be scratched into with a stylus, and while that original wax has not survived, some of the writing penetrated into the wood, and that is what can be made out. It’s been a bit of work deciphering what amounts to Latin chicken scratch.
As far as the history goes, London was first built by the Romans around AD 40, and, just twenty-five years later, the settlement was already a bustling trade capital. While the documents say nothing of children or women, they contain information about shipments of beer and food, and legal documents about disputes between merchants. One, the oldest document ever found in Britain, is, quite hilariously, just an IOU, saying “105 denarii from the price of the merchandise which has been sold and delivered”.
Not long after this tablet was inscribed, Britain would fall out of favor with Rome. When Roman officials decided not to recognize Celtic queen Boudicca’s right to inherit her husband’s throne, when they decided to humiliate her by flogging her and raping her daughters, she united the Celtic Iceni tribe with its surrounding tribes and went on a rampage in an attempt to free Britain from Roman rule. She leveled three cities to the ground. London was one of them. She destroyed London in the Celtic Rebellion in AD 61, but after her eventual defeat and death under the crushing might of the Roman Empire, London was quickly rebuilt and open for business.
The find is in the capable hands of the London Museum of Archaeology, who are continuing to work to translate the wooden tablets.
“[The find is] hugely significant…It’s the first generation of Londoners speaking to us.” – Sophie Jackson, Archaeologist on the Walbrook site.