Earliest written reference to London found

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The earliest reference to London? Photo: MOLA

The earliest-known written reference to London was revealed today (1 June) by MOLA archaeologists, as part of Britain’s largest, earliest, and most significant group of Roman waxed writing tablets.

The reference forms part of an address – Londinio Mogontio, ‘To Mogontius [a Celtic personal name], in London’, and appears on a writing tablet dating from c.AD 65, pre-dating Tacitus’ famous mention of London in his Annals, previously held to be the earliest, by half a century.

The fragmentary tablet is one of 405 excavated by MOLA on the site of Bloomberg’s new European headquarters in the City of London – a dig in waterlogged ground beside the Walbrook river, which also yielded the well-preserved remains of Roman structures, and a wealth of artefacts shedding vivid light on life in Londinium (see CA 280 for more on these finds).

Made of wood probably recycled from barrels, the tablets are thin wooden cases originally filled with blackened beeswax. Text was inscribed into this using styli, and while the wax is now lost, the metal writing implements have left scratches on the base wood that preserve traces of the words once written there.

Some of the deciphered tablets. Photo: C Hilts
Some of the deciphered tablets. Photo: C Hilts

Previously, only 19 legible tablets were known from London, but 87 of the Bloomberg finds have now been deciphered by Dr Roger Tomlin, and expert in Roman cursive, who in many cases had to unpick multiple layers of text from the frequently-reused objects.

‘The Bloomberg writing tablets are very important for the early history of Roman Britain, and London in particular,’ he said. ‘I am so lucky to be the first to read them again, after more than 19 centuries, and to imagine what these people were like, who founded the new city of London. What a privilege to eavesdrop on them: when I decipher their handwriting, I think of my own heroes, the wartime academics who worked at Bletchley Park.’

Appropriately, given their location in the city, this painstaking work has revealed the tablets to be mostly legal and commercial documents, preserving the names, activities, and concerns of people working in the city almost 2,000 years ago.

Their contents include the earliest dated handwritten document known from Britain – a financial document between two businessmen, both former slaves, dating from AD 57. It reads:

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 [8 January AD 57]. 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…

The tablets also provide rare insights into how the city recovered after its destruction at the hands of Boudica’s Iceni army (together with St Albans, Verulamium, and Colchester, Camulodunum – see CA 308) in AD 60/61. Very little evidence is known for how quickly London got back on its feet after the devastation, but a contract from 21 October AD 62, only a year or two after the uprising, confirms the order of ’20 loads of provisions’ from St Albans to London – clearly both cities were up and operating commercially again by that early stage, at least to some extent.

Britain's earliest handwritten document? Photo: MOLA
Britain’s earliest handwritten document? Photo: MOLA

Among these echoes of official business, there are also more personal insights: one tablet, dating from c.AD 60-62, is inscribed with the letters of the alphabet, possibly a demonstration of literacy or letter forms – or, given that a few letters are missing, someone’s writing practice? Might this represent the first evidence for Roman schooling yet found in Britain?

Meanwhile, the scribe of Tablet 45 – the post-Boudican provisions order mentioned above – also makes a slip of the stylus: in writing where the provisions were to come from, he begins to write ‘Londinium’ in error, deletes this, discovers that he now does not have space to write the correct name, ‘Verulamium’, and carries on on the next line.

Sophie Jackson, Archaeologist and Director at MOLA, said: ‘We always had high hopes for the Bloomberg dig, situated in the heart of the Roman and modern city and with perfect wet conditions for the survival of archaeology, but the findings far exceeded all expectations. The writing tablets are truly a gift for archaeologists trying to get closer to the first Roman Britons.’

The tablets have been carefully conserved by MOLA specialists, using a combination of immersion in Polyethylene Glycol (PEG – the same substance used to preserve the Tudor flagship Mary Rose – see CA 272) and freeze drying. The team’s research is newly published in Roman London’s first voices: writing tablets from the Bloomberg excavations, 2010–14 – and we will bring you the full story of the tablets’ discovery and deciphering in CA 317.

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