The voices of the first generation of Londoners have been brought back to life after Britain’s largest and oldest collection of Roman waxed writing tablets was discovered under an office block in the City.
Archaeologists said the “hugely significant” find contained the earliest known reference to London itself — 50 years before its first mention by the Roman historian Tacitus — as well as the oldest-dated handwritten document in Britain and suggestions of London’s first office.
Spanning a 30-year period in the mid-first century AD, the documents suggest a bustling commercial and trading hub had sprung up in the three decades since the city’s foundation.
Digging delicately into the wet mud of the Walbrook, a “lost” tributary of the Thames whose waters kept the slim wooden boards from decaying over nearly two millennia, archaeologists had expected to unearth, at most, a handful of tablets.
“What we actually found completely blew us away,” said Sophie Jackson, director at Museum of London Archaeology, after the dig produced 405 tablets among 15,000 objects, about one-fifth of which were legible.
The earliest example that can be dated from its own text is a financial contract made on January 8 57AD, during the reign of the emperor Nero, when two merchants agreed a payment of 105 denarii for goods delivered — an amount equating to roughly half a year’s salary for a legionary.
The most historically significant document concerns an apparently mundane deal between two businessmen agreeing terms for the delivery of 20 loads of foodstuffs from Verulamium (St Albans) to London. Its importance lies in its date: October 21 62AD, only a year after Queen Boudicca laid waste to the region in an uprising that was then brutally suppressed.
Roger Tomlin, the classicist who painstakingly decoded the tablets, said: “In the year 61AD, according to Tacitus, both cities were destroyed by Boudicca and 70,000 lives lost. And yet here we find this rapid recovery.”
Scratched directly on to the wooden edge of a writing tablet dating from 65-70AD was the city’s first mention — “Londinio Mogontio”, translating as “To Mogontius in London”. Like many names among the finds, Mogontius is not a Roman but a Celtic name, underlining the degree of interaction that typically went on between the imperial incomers and locals.
Another tablet tantalises with a fragment of advice given by the writer to a businessman friend who, it suggests, has lent money unwisely: “ . . . because they are boasting through the whole market that you have lent them money. Therefore I ask you in your own interest not to appear shabby . . . You will not thus favour your own affairs . . .”
Mr Tomlin said that “we get strange glimpses of this carpetbagger business community in the very early years of London”.
Brewing and beer make several appearances among the discoveries. One note is written to “Junius the cooper” while a second details a delivery of beer barrels. Another is addressed to “Tertius, the brewer”, a person referred to separately in a tablet discovered in Carlisle, at the northern frontier of the empire. “It would indicate this is the first beer baron, whose empire extends from London to Carlisle”, Mr Tomlin said.
Nineteen of the tablets were found in a small room built with timber supports and a foundation that has survived. Those that were legible appear to be legal documents, including one dating from 67AD that experts suggested was the will of a Roman army officer. Given the concentration of legal and administrative texts, Ms Jackson said the room could lay claim to being London’s first office — “or even its first law firm”.
Deciphering the fragments of handwritten Latin script has been a three-year labour. The layer of blackened beeswax that would have covered indentations in the boards had disappeared by the time the tablets were found, but some writers scratched through the wax to leave faint marks on the surface of the underlying wood.
These were photographed under bright lights positioned at different raking angles to pick out the lightest indentations of the stylus. Combined using photo-editing software, the resulting images were then sent for analysis to Mr Tomlin, an expert in cursive Latin script. Many of the letters visible on the tablets remain familiar to us, he said: “They are the ultimate ancestors of our own writing.”
Experts from Museum of London Archaeology unveiled their findings on Wednesday at the offices of Bloomberg, which is building its new European headquarters over the site between Bucklersbury and Walbrook, close to the Bank of England. The artefacts will be put on display in a permanent public exhibition inside the building when it opens in autumn 2017.
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