What Have The Romans Ever Done For Us?*
Cult Pens Finds An Interesting Pen In An Unlikely Place
As keen readers of our newsletter know we popped up to Newcastle in May to watch Amanda's Rugby League team, Widnes Vikings, get
thrashed beaten by Wakefield as part of the RL Magic Weekend. As part of that trip we were lucky to be able to spend a few days in Northumberland doing a little exploring of a county we didn't really know. Based near Haltwhistle, we hiked a section of Hadrian's Wall from Greenhead to Vindolanda. The wall, with its accompanying views, milecastles and open moorland is a well-known attraction and extremely satisfying to walk alongside. However, until this trip Vindolanda was just an intriguing name on our OS map and a convenient end to a good walk. Ancient historical sites can often be a little underwhelming and we ventured in with a restorative cup of tea highest on the priority list, if we're going to be honest. But… wow... Amazing is a tragically over-used adjective in this day and age, so we'll add astonishing and fascinating to back it up.
Vindolanda was a Roman fort, or more accurately a series of Roman forts, built and re-built a total of nine times between AD 85 and AD 300. Initially built of wood, then later of stone, each updated fort was built on top of the demolished remains of the old one. There are plenty of ruins of the final fort to be seen on the site, but this layering of what was then rubbish, combined with the preserving embrace of the anaerobic water-logged soil has resulted in a unique archaeological treasure trove. The ground conditions mean that in addition to the usual metal, ceramic and bone finds, Vindolanda has yielded an incredible wealth of wooden, leather and textile objects that would normally have succumbed to the intervening 13+ centuries of time and degradation. The most important of these are the Vindolanda Tablets**, which are among the oldest surviving hand-written documents in Britain. These definitely come under the heading of Quite Interesting, but what really grabbed the attention of your correspondent is the fact that they were written in ink. Other tablets from similar sites are usually scribed with a simple stylus into wax or similar. The Vindolanda Tablets are very thin sheets of wood, written with carbon-based ink using some sort of dip pen, and folded in half, with the names and addresses of sender and recipient on the outside faces. There are hundreds of surviving tablets covering everything from military and bureaucratic matters, to personal messages between soldiers, families and even slaves. The most famous example is a birthday party invitation written around AD 100 from Claudia Severa to Sulpicia Lepedina. The two handwriting styles on this tablet seem to show that the main text was written by a professional scribe, but with a personal greeting added by Claudia, which is the oldest known example of female hand-writing. Several of these tablets are on display in the excellent museum that adjoins the ruins of the fort at Vindolanda. The Vindolanda Tablets are so important that they're owned by the British Museum and some very sophisticated and expensive display equipment had to be installed at the Vindolanda Museum before any were allowed 'back home'. You can also see some of them in the British Museum's Roman Britain gallery. So far then, so utterly fascinating, but in an adjacent case was a real surprise. A pen! Double-take… Yes, lurking quietly among a bunch of metal stylii was a wooden-barrelled, iron-nibbed pen. Nearly 2000 years old. Just incredible.
We highly recommend a visit to Vindolanda - run by the Vindolanda Trust, the ruins are impressive and revealing and the museum is extremely well done. Make sure you get yourself on a guided walk of the ruins - you'll learn a lot. It's also an active archaeological dig which they reckon will take at least another 100 years of work to complete. Oh, and the cup of tea wasn't too bad either.
*…apart from sanitation, medicine, education, wine, public order, irrigation, roads, a fresh water system, and public health... obvs!
**In researching this I find that the Vindolanda Tablets were voted top in a 2003 poll as part of the BBC Television documentary Our Top Ten Treasures. Passed me by…
7 June 2017