Monday, September 18, 2017

Roman Londoners from the Bloomberg Tablets

by Caroline Lawrence

It is a cool grey Saturday morning in mid-September I am on my way to a London square near St Paul’s cathedral. A writer in search of inspiration, I am hoping to meet some ancient residents of Roman London or Londinium, as it was called. 

fragment of Samian ware with archer now at MOLA
For many centuries it was believed that St Paul’s cathedral was built on the site of an ancient temple dedicated to the Roman goddess Diana. After the great fire in 1666 when the architect Christopher Wren was digging the foundations for his new St Paul’s, he kept a sharp lookout for evidence of Roman occupation. Although he found no trace of a Temple of Diana, he did find other Roman artefacts including fragments of popular Samian ware, a type of imported, glossy orange pottery beloved by rich Romans in Britain. 

Over three hundred years after the new St Pauls rose from ashes, the multi-national company Bloomberg were digging the foundations for their new European headquarters in the City of London. Like Wren they also found Roman artefacts; not just a few, but over fifteen thousand. These were preserved in the waterlogged soil of the Walbrook, one of several streams that feeds into the Thames. The Roman goodies included leather shoes, pottery, brooches, hairpins, rings and – most exciting of all – over four hundred writing tablets. 

Unlike the famous Vindolanda tablets, most of the so-called Bloomberg tablets are not postcard-thin wafers of limewood designed to be inscribed with ink, but stylus tablets made of silver fir reclaimed from imported wine barrels. Also known as wax tablets, these were slim tiles of wood with a shallow depression for a layer of wax. This wax was scratched away with a sharp stylus to reveal the wood underneath. The London tablets were mainly covered with soot-blackened wax, which contrasted with the pale wood underneath. 

As a Classicist, Londoner and writer of historical fiction for kids, I was thrilled when MOLA, the Museum of London Archaeology department, invited me to be one of their ambassadors of archaeologyI jumped at the chance and was rewarded with a copy of the first of several volumes about the Bloomberg finds and also a private tour of the MOLA repository in Hackney. At Mortimer Wheeler House I saw some of the tablets and artefacts up close. The ancient combs, shoes and brooches were fun, but Ive seen plenty of those before in museums. 

What I hadnt seen were items like the wonderful iron stylus from Rome (left) with an inscription on its hexagonal sides declaring: I have come from the City. I bring you a welcome gift with a sharp point so that you may remember me. I hope I bring you good fortune when the way is long and the money sack is empty. As archaeologist Michael Marshall (above) remarked, this is the ancient equivalent of My Parents Went to Rome and all I got was this lousy T-shirt. 

And then there were the famous tablets. Most would have about the size of a small paperback book (140 cm x 110 cm), but with with the thickness of a smartphone. A few are the size of an iPad and a few are tags. Some have a central depression for the impression of signet rings. Roman wills had to be witnessed by no fewer than seven men and they were always recorded on sturdy wax tablets. 

When you look at the tablets you are amazed that anyone can make sense of the faint chicken scratchings left by the stylus as it pushed through the wax nearly two thousand years ago. But a combination of ultra-modern technology and old-fashioned genius makes this possible. 

Genius photographer Andy Chopping records the traces of scratches left by the stylus and gives them to genius epigraphist Roger Tomlin (above). A kind of code-breaker of ancient Latin cursive, Tomlin has been able to decipher parts of 80 of these tablets. (See how they do it HERE.)

From the archaeological context and a few dates on some of the tablets, we know these documents go right back to the very first years of London’s existence as a Roman town and cover a period of about twenty years, from roughly AD 60 to about AD 80. They give us an extraordinary glimpse into the life of Roman Londoners, naming merchants, craftsmen, soldiers and politicians who lived in the new outpost of the Roman Empire. 

Fittingly for London, almost all the legible tablets have something to do with business and commerce. Each tablet is given a label with a code including the letters WT which stands for Writing Tablet

One thrilling tablet, WT44, was written when Nero was emperor and is dated to 8 Jan AD 57. In it, a freedman named Tibullus notes that he owes another freedman named Gratus 105 denarii for some merchandise which was sold and delivered. 

This tablet sent a chill down my spine when I remembered that Boudica burnt Colchester, St Albans and London only three years later during her brief but violent rebellion. It is claimed that she killed over 70,000 people. Did Tibullus and Gratus survive? 

Tablet WT45 shows how quickly London rose from the ashes and St Albans, too. It is business as usual as Marcus Rennius Venustus agrees to bring twenty loads of provisions from Verulamium to London. It is dated 21 October AD 62, within two years of Boudica’s rebellion.

Another extraordinary label, WT6,  gives us the first historical mention of London. Dated between AD 65 – 70, it is addressed to a certain Mogontius. We don’t know who he was but the name is a Celtic one, linked to the god Mogons who was worshipped in Britain and Gaul and might have been extra-popular with soldiers. 

The tablets are written according to certain conventions. Although the messages themselves are often scrawled in a hard-to-decipher type of writing called cursive, the addresses are usually written in easy to read capital letters. They are either in the dative case or have the Latin word dabis – the verb to give in the second person singular future tense – ‘you will give’ . This was considered more polite than the imperative da! Give! And might be translated ‘Please give...

So we have tablets addressed thus:

Please give this to Bassus

To Atticus, son of [name lost]

To Sabinus, son of Pirinus

Please give this to Junius the cooper, opposite Catullus’ place

One tablet is addressed to Tertius the Brewer, who might be Domitius Tertius, a brewer mentioned in a tablet from Carlisle. Maybe he sourced his barrels from Junius the Cooper.  

Other Romans named include Julius, Florus, Jucundus son of Flavius and the merchant Optatus. 

My favourite name is Namatobogius; I hope to meet him and find out who he was. 

When I finally arrive at Paternoster Square I am greeted by MOLA development and community project officer Magnus Copps (his real name) who introduces me to four members of The Vicus re-enactment group: Matt the baker, Simon the saddler, Chris the merchant and a lady scribe who wants to remain anonymous. When I ask them which Bloomberg Roman Londoners they are, they say they aren’t specific Londoners mentioned in the Bloomberg tablets, just generic Roman Britons. 

After a flash of disappointment, I take the initiative and assign them possible roles. 

Simon is wearing a fetching Celtic style tunic so I provisionally give him the name Namatobogius. When he does other events with The Vicus – for example at Fishbourne Roman villa or Caerleon legionary fortress – he plays the part of an auxiliary with the Hamian archers, co-incidentally the cohort that appears in my second Roman Quest bookHe tells me you can use hair from a horse’s tail as a bowstring, and how the Romans used tannin-rich oak, apple or chestnut to dye leather.

With his bright blue eyes, long yellow hair and torque, Chris from Cambridge is obviously Belgic. But hes wearing a Roman style toga. This fits his persona of an injured auxiliary from Germania who took early retirement and set up as a merchant. At first I dub him Optatus, a merchant mentioned in the tablets. But when he mentions that he is a micro-brewer, I give him a new persona: Tertius the Brewer. Appropriately, he is holding a beaker. His handmade socks and new shoes are totally authentic. He also confirms what I have always suspected, that it is impossible to run in a toga. 

Matt Hoskins, a cub scout leader from Poplar, a district of Southeast London, is a genial baker in his mid-twenties. With his pale skin, dark hair and tattooed arms he could be Celtic, so I might dub him Mogontius. He is a font of information about sourdough mixture, different types of flour and bugs in honey. He shows me a libum, a type of honey cake made with cheese and decorated with bay leaves. He also demonstrates Locatellis theory of how Roman bakers wrapped twine around their round loaves before baking so the customers could easily carry them away when hot. And possibly to keep them out of reach of vermin. 

But what about women?

Vindolanda gave us the famous birthday invitation sent by Sulpicia Lepidina to her friend Claudia Severa, but of all 92 persons named in the 80 legible Bloomberg tablets, not one is female. So I can make the elegant lady scribe anybody I want her to be. But it would be nice to have an authentic name, so I hop over to the online site of RIB, Roman Inscriptions in Britain, and immediately find two possible candidates.

She could be Tullia Numidia, commemorated in the epitaph of a now lost tombstone from London. Or how about Tretia Maria, named in a curse tablet (right) found near Moorgate? The author of the tablet (a lead one in this case, not from Bloomberg) is afraid of Tretia blurting out a secret. He or she writesI curse Tretia Maria and her life and mind and memory and liver and lungs mixed up together, and her words, thoughts, and memory; thus may she be unable to speak what things are concealed...

Liver and lungs mixed up together? That’s a bit nasty. But wait! Writers have to be nasty. We have to give our characters interesting opponents and force them to undergo tests and trials. Otherwise the reader will be bored. So Tretia Maria it is. And even as I write it I wonder: Could Tretia be a misspelling of Tertia? In which case, she could be related to Tertius the Brewer: his beautiful daughter perhaps or younger sister. Perhaps Mogontius the baker and Namatobogius the cobbler are both vying for her affections. But what is the secret she knows and who wants to stop her blurting it out?

I feel a story coming on… 

To learn more about the tablets, and the ancient stories they reveal, check out Voices from Roman London. And you can follow MOLA on Twitter: @MOLArchaeology

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