Stylus tablet, Walbrook

A Corpus of Writing-Tablets from Roman Britain

(A British Academy Research Project)

Project Directors - Dr. A.K. Bowman FBA, Prof. J.M. Brady FRS FEng., Dr. R.S.O. Tomlin FSA, Prof. J.D. Thomas FBA

Research Assistant - Dr J. Pearce

A Brief Description of the Project

Of the former provinces of the Roman empire, Britain is perhaps the most prolific in producing new Latin documents. These comprise two main types. The first, well known from excavations at Vindolanda, close to Hadrian's Wall, includes wooden ink and stylus tablets, the second texts inscribed on thin sheets of metal, usually lead, commonly referred to as 'curse tablets'. Wooden tablets tend to survive only in waterlogged archaeological contexts, but lead tablets are less dependent on these particular preservation conditions and have been recovered both during archaeological excavation and as surface finds, especially in recent years through the use of metal detectors. A project based at the Centre for the Study of Ancient Documents (CSAD) at Oxford University aims to publish a corpus of these lead and wooden tablets. It will compile and sometimes re-edit known texts as well as publish recent discoveries. Preparation of the corpus will include the application of new techniques of digital image enhancement to these artefacts. These techniques are being developed in collaboration with the Faculty of Engineering Science at Oxford and will allow significantly improved readings of texts, indeed sometimes the first readings of texts previously considered illegible.

A Preliminary Survey

The purpose of this website is to announce the project, briefly describe its objectives and report on progress. Preparation of the corpus is currently at a preliminary stage. This has so far comprised a literature search and appeals for information to museums, archaeological units and metal detectorists.

Progress report

A brief report on the results of this preliminary survey is available here.

Images and further reading

The image at the top of this page is of a stylus tablet from early Roman deposits in the Walbrook, London (RIB II 2.4432), which bears the stamp of the imperial procurator (chief financial officer) in Britain. Photographs and drawings of a selection of lead tablets from Roman Britain can be seen here. Images of wooden tablets from Vindolanda and writing equipment from Roman Britain can be seen in the on-line collection of the British Museum (from the British Museum home page follow the 'Explore our Collections' link to the Compass search facility).

References to books and papers on Romano-British writing tablets can also be found here, along with suggestions for further reading on ancient literacy.

Acknowledgements and copyright

We are very grateful to the many museum curators and archaeological unit archivists who responded to our appeal, the Finds Liaison Officers of the Portable Antiquities Scheme for disseminating news of our project, Mr Jim Patterson, aka 'Old Yellow Belly', for including a piece on the project in his column in The Searcher, Issue 182, October 2000 and to individual metal detectorists who have so far replied to us. The preliminary survey for the project is being undertaken by Dr. John Pearce, whose post as research assistant on the Vindolanda tablets at the CSAD, is funded by the British Academy. Other work on Romano-British writing tablets in Oxford is funded by the British Academy, the Arts and Humanities Research Board and the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council.

Please note that the images posted on these web pages are intended for research and educational use only and must not be reproduced without the permission of the copyright holders. Images were kindly made available by Roger Tomlin, who has permitted the text and translation of the Hamble tablet to be quoted.

Return to top

CSAD | Introduction | Letter to museums | Description of curse tablets | Progress report | Images and references

Contact details:

John Pearce
Centre for the Study of Ancient Documents
67 St Giles
Oxford OX1 3LU
Tel./Fax +44 (0)1865 288266