Ancient Roman Tablets Reveal Voices of the Earliest Londoners

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The earliest dated documents from Londinium highlight the city’s history. (Nat Geo News)

How did the technology of writing help ancient Rome maintain control of their expanding empire? Use our resources to find out.

Teachers, scroll down for a quick list of key resources in our Teachers Toolkit.

Discussion Ideas

  • The Museum of London Archaeology (MOLA) recently published research on Britain’s largest, earliest and most significant collection of Roman waxed writing tablets. The collection comes from the “Bloomberg site” in London. Why is it called the Bloomberg site?
    • The excavations are being carried out at the downtown London construction site of the massive new European headquarters of Bloomberg L.P. Bloomberg L.P. is a financial software, data, and media company.

 

  • What are wax tablets?
    • Wax tablets are basically small, iPad-sized blocks of wood. One side is hollowed out and covered with a thin layer of wax. Writers use a sharp, pointed instrument called a stylus to write on the wax. If a writer wants to change their message, they can smooth out the wax with their hand or a blunt object, or heat it up to melt and reset entirely. Two or more tablets are often tied together to be opened and shut like a book, protecting the wax and writing inside.
    • The wax is long gone from the Bloomberg tablets. What remains are the faint impressions left as a stylus nicked or indented the wood beneath.
    • Want a fun summer craft project? Make your own wax tablet with directions here!

 

 

Map by Roke, courtesy Wikimedia. CC-BY-SA-3.0

Map by Roke, courtesy Wikimedia. CC-BY-SA-3.0

  • Take a look at this map of the expansion of the Roman sphere of influence, and later empire. When did Rome expand to the island of Great Britain? Who was there before?
    • Rome conquered the southern part of the island of Great Britain in 43 CE.
    • Prior to Roman conquest, the island was populated by Celts. The Celts were a loosely affiliated group of western European tribes who all spoke variations of a language (Celtic) and shared some cultural similarities. Southern Celtic tribes in Great Britain included the Iceni (pay attention to that one), the Ordovices, and the Dumnonii. Northern Celtic tribes included the Caledonii, Epidii, and the Selgovae.

 

  • What writing system pre-dated Latin in Great Britain?
    • None that we know of. Although the Celtic “Common Brittonic” was spoken throughout the island, there is no evidence it was a written language before Roman occupation.

 

  • How did written Latin help Rome control the British tribes?
    • Written language and the ability to read—literacy, which, it should be noted, not all Romans had and many Britons picked up very quickly—allowed Romans to better communicate with each other. For example:
      • Literacy allowed greater and more precise communication across great distances.
      • Literacy gave Romans greater access to prior knowledge. Pre-literate people were reliant on memory.
      • Literacy allowed Romans to share ideas and record those ideas for future collaboration. This facilitated quicker communication and the development of community ideas and strategies.
      • Written language allowed for communication with a much larger number of people than spoken language. Carving your name in stone, leaving graffiti on a wall, or distributing documents (such as wax tablets) to several groups of people at once allows you to reach a much broader audience than speaking alone.
      • Literacy allowed individuals to be exposed to a greater diversity of thoughts, opinions, stories, and points of view.

 

  • How do dates on the Bloomberg tablets show Roman control of its British subjects? Cue the video to about 1:35 for some help.
    • One of the tablets dates to 62 CE. This is not entirely unusual, except “we know that London was totally destroyed by Boudicca, so was [the town of] St. Albans … in 61 CE.” Just a year following the destruction, the tablet records an everyday business contract to bring “20 loads of provisions from Verulamium (modern-day St. Albans) to Londinium,” indicating the very rapid recovery of both cities.
      • FYI: Boudicca was an Iceni leader who led a bloody uprising against the Roman Empire.

 

This fragment of a wooden tablet reads "Londinio Mogontio," which translates to “In London, to Mogontius.” (Mogontius is a Celtic name.) Photograph courtesy MOLA

This fragment of a wooden tablet reads “Londinio Mogontio,” which translates to “To Mogontius, in London.” (Mogontius is a Celtic name.)
Photograph courtesy MOLA

  • What is surprising about the Bloomberg tablets?
    • Lots of things! But perhaps the most iconic artifact is the earliest mention of the city in which the discoveries were made: Londinium. The tablet dates from between 65 and 80 CE, predating the previously earliest reference to London 50 years later.

 

TEACHERS TOOLKIT

Nat Geo: Ancient Roman IOUs Found Beneath Bloomberg’s New London HQ

Bloomberg: The Story of the Bloomberg Writing Tablets

Nat Geo: Technology and Control in Ancient Rome

Time Traveller Kids: Make a Roman Wax Tablet

Museum of London: Londinium! game

Museum of London Archaeology: Archaeological research into Britain’s oldest hand-written documents released

One response to “Ancient Roman Tablets Reveal Voices of the Earliest Londoners

  1. Pingback: 11 Things We Learned This Week! | Nat Geo Education Blog·

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