June 8, 2016

UK scientists positively date the oldest handwritten document in Britain


The earliest known written reference to London. Via BBC.com.

The earliest known written reference to London. Via BBC.com.

Back in 2013, while laying the foundation for Bloomberg’s new European offices in the heart of London, diggers discovered a trove of ancient Roman artifacts. It was a spectacular find: entire ancient city streets, buildings, clothes, personal items, a wooden door, all lying just forty feet below some of the world’s busiest sidewalks. They called it the “Pompeii of the North.”  Earlier this month, archaeologists at The Museum of London Archaeology (MOLA) announced that this groundbreaking cache contains the oldest written document ever found in the United Kingdom, dating from 43-53 AD.

The writing was etched in a wooden tablet, most likely the backing for a Roman cera, an inexpensive alternative to papyrus consisting of a folding wooden or leather frame covered in blackened beeswax, which would be inscribed with a bone or metal stylus. The beeswax is long gone, but the letters remain carved into the wooden base, preserved by the cool, soaking mud in which they were buried.

The legible portion of the tablet reads:

…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….

Several such tablets have been recovered, dating from the same period. They appear to have been used for educational or financial purposes. Some are even dated, with the text of the earliest of these reading:

In the consulship of Nero Claudius Caesar Augustus Germanicus for the second time and of Lucius Calpurnius Piso, on the 6th day before the Ides of January [i.e. January 8, 57 AD], I, Tibullus the freedman of Venustus, have written and say that I owe Gratus the freedman of Spurius 105 denarii from the price of the merchandise which has been sold and delivered. This money I am due to repay him or the person whom the matter will concern…

Starting in 2017, the pieces will be on display at the London Mithraeum, an ancient temple to the god Mithras discovered and excavated in 1954.



Simon Reichley is the Director of Operations and Rights Manager at Melville House.