Britain’s oldest hand-dated document found in Roman trove

London, June 1

The earliest dated handwritten document from Britain has been unearthed in the heart of London, archaeologist announced today, among a trove of Roman writing tablets revealing the city’s commerce-driven beginnings.

The wooden tablet, a notice of debt owed dated January 8, 57  less than 14 years after the Roman invasion of 43  was found deep beneath what is now the City of London financial hub.

The 405 tablets also contained the earliest surviving written reference to London.

They reveal correspondence requesting payments, boasting of money-lending, asking favours to be returned, litigation requiring a judge and also evidence of someone practising the alphabet.

“It was like the email of the Roman world,” said Sophie Jackson, director of the Museum of London Archaeology which led the dig.

The tablets were found during excavation for financial news agency and data provider new European headquarters by the Bank of England.

Romans used waxed writing tablets for note-taking, accounts and legal documents. Writing was carved into the wax, and sometimes the scratches were deep enough to score the wood beneath.

The wood survived because the tablets were buried in the mud of the River, which now exists as a boggy streak of earth 12 metres below the modern city.

Previously only 19 legible tablets had been found in London. Of the 405 discovered under the new Bloomberg building, 87 have been deciphered.

Roger Tomlin, the classicist and cursive Latin expert who deciphered the inscriptions, was the first person to read them again after more than 19 centuries. “It’s like code-breaking,” he told AFP.

The tablets reveal the names of nearly 100 people, from a brewer to a judge, soldiers, slaves and freed slaves making their way in business.

They show early London was inhabited by businessmen and soldiers, many from Gaul and the Rhineland. None were women.

On one dated to circa 65-80 is written “Londinio Mogontio”, or “In London, to Mogontius”, a Celtic personal name, and is the earliest reference to London by 50 years.

“The tablets are hugely significant,” said Jackson.

“They are the largest single assemblage of wax writing tablets found in Britain and what’s particularly special about them is they are so early.”

She said they allowed us to hear “the voices of the very first Londoners”.

The earliest tablet, found in a layer dated 43-53, refers to people “boasting through the whole market that you have lent them money”.

The oldest one with a date written on, from January 8, 57, is from one freed slave to another acknowledging a 105 denarii debt for merchandise delivered  around half what a Roman soldier would earn in a year. The Celtic queen Boudicca burned Londinium to the ground in a native revolt in 60 or 61.

But a tablet from October 21, 62 about delivering provisions from another city she destroyed “shows the recovery was happening much sooner than had previously been assumed”, site director Sadie Watson said.

Jackson said they painted a picture of the City of London that still resonated nowadays.

“It was quite a cosmopolitan city early on.”