Thursday, 23 June 2011

Buried four metres down!

I have mentioned my liking for all things archival before, here and over here, and the fact that when looking for a framework on which to hang my Sefuty Chronicles I turned to them again.  What I like so much are the stories of real, ordinary people that one finds there. 

A few years ago I read of a letter discovered near Hadrian’s Wall, in Northumberland.  A party invite really and I was intrigued.  A Roman party invite.  At primary school we had the Roman Occupation of Britain and, for that matter, the known world (that gets me every time – the rest was known to those living there!) it seemed ad infinitum.  I wasn’t that interested then, although the thought of a defensive wall stretching across the country did appeal.  I imagined violent hairy Picts on the other side – my childish ideas of the Scots were grossly misinformed I was to find out later.  I filed the invite away in my mind, a memo to self go and see one day.

Then this year I did get a chance to holiday in Northumberland and realised I could go to the Roman ruins and see this invite for myself (actually it is a replica! The British Museum in London has the original).  There is this one site, Vindolanda Fort, a little way away from the Wall.  All together there were at least eight forts built on this spot.  Wooden buildings being built on wooden buildings and then stone on top of them.  Here I found an underground archive.

Underground because all the letters, bills, reports etc., hundreds of them, had been buried under layers of packed earth and preserved in a way I fear our modern archives will not be able to manage. The Vindolanda tablets are thin pieces of wood, about the size of a large postcard about 3mm thick, with ink writing.  The pen used was made of reed.  Most of them date from AD 92-105 – my imagination boggles at the age of them.

I saw the party invite; they think it was the earliest found piece of writing by a woman.  In it Claudia Severa invites her friend Lepidina
 ‘on 11 September, for the day of the celebration of my birthday.  I give you a warm invitation to make sure you come to us, it will make the day more enjoyable for me if you are present . . ‘.*

She also mentions her ‘little son’.  What did she feel about following her husband (a senior army officer Aelius Brocchus) so far from home with her child?

A small ambition of mine achieved.

Other tablets found discuss provisions; a shopping list
‘2 modii of bruised beans, 20 chickens, 100 apples, if you can find nice ones, 100 or 100 eggs, if they are for sale at a fair price, 8 sextarii of fish sauce, a modius of olives*’
I do wonder how, in a countryside not exactly heaving with people, 100-200 eggs could be found – was this an early form of factory farming or did they just not mind stale/bad eggs? 

These tablets show the soldiers were eating a varied diet; the food found listed included
‘Beans, lentils, bread, pancakes, barley, wheat, apples, eggs, porridge, chicken, pork chops, fish, venison, oysters, ham, herbs, radishes, beetroot, butter, honey, spices, pepper, mustard, fish sauce, olive oil, olives, vinegar, salt, garlic, wine, and British beer’ * 

Were all these local produce?  Was the climate in England warm enough for olive trees back then or were they imported? They would come from the sunnier climes of the Roman Empire, so then the mind can travel with them across the seas to the inclement northern parts of this little island.  So many stories!

We know from other tablets that many of the soldiers had eye infections and ointments were made up.  One tablet mentions
‘anise, nuts, berries, soft wheat flour, beans, alum, wax, bitumen, bull’s glue, pitch, blacking, anchusa, mustard seed, verdigris, linen soaked in honey, resin, cumin, oak gall’ *

All ingredients that could be used for the treatment of wounds and illnesses.

Northumberland can be a very cold windy place and one tablet says
‘I have sent you some socks from Sattua, two pairs of sandals and two pairs of underpants.’* 

Was it from a mother anxious for her son? Had he already written to her complaining.  It is understood the basic uniform was supplied but these extras had to supplied by the soldier – nothing much changes it seems!

When they were not fighting those maligned Picts, the soldiers were occupied in trades.  Another tablet shows
            24 April, in the workshops 343 men including: shoemakers 12; builders to the bath-house 18;  lead working, saw-makers, builders to the hospital, workers to the kilns, plasterer.’*

Now I can smell the cooking, the smelting; hear hammering, listen to men, women and children talking, shouting, just being.  The artefacts dug up lend substance to the tablets, the outlines of ruins show the hospital, bath houses, kitchens. 

Buried under four metres of soil this is a treasure trove, more are found every year and it so satisfied my archival soul.

* excerpts from The British Museum  ‘V-Mail Letters from the Romans at Vindolanda Fort near Hadrian’s Wall’ by Katherine Hoare

(1 modii = 9 litres – 1 sextarii =1/2 litre)


  1. How absolutely wonderful. Imagining life gone past and how so very different it must have been. It brings with it the enormity of time, something that also boggles my mind. Thank you for such a wonderful post.

  2. what a lovely post. I am a history buff in the same areas and time frames you mention and your words are so full of evocative phrases that I got sucked in. A party invite read centuries later. boggles the mind.