Monday, May 02, 2011

Roman Emails

I'm trying to imagine a parallel with how it must have seemed to the native Brits when the Romans invaded.

Perhaps it would have been as if, during the Second World War, the Nazis had invaded Britain equipped with mobile phones and the computers that we have now.

The Romans were so very far ahead in technology and in just about everything else.

They were well-organised planners at a time when the Brits didn't do much except shiver a lot and wish for summer - - much as we do now, in fact.

On our recent visit to Hadrian's Wall we also visited the Roman fort of Vindolanda, which was at the far North of the Roman Empire.

I was last there in the early Seventies, soon after the Romans had left (let me make that joke before you do, eh?) In those days they hadn't excavated much of it - - but now they have excavated a lot of the fort and the village in front of it and also added a museum which really brings the place to life.

Museums can be deadly dull, full of bored children filling in worksheets. This one isn't dull at all - and the Roman Army Museum nearby is also fascinating. I loved such exhibits at Vindolanda as hundreds of different Roman sandals, from basic workman's shoes to elegant ladies' slippers, all preserved because the damp conditions kept the oxygen, which would have rotted them, out.

The museum's full of interesting details - - such as that Roman soldiers used to train with wooden swords filled with lead, to make them extra heavy - so that when they picked up the real thing it seemed light as a feather.

The Romans were there at about the time that BC had recently turned into AD. So a loooong time ago by our standards.

During the excavations, one day they found two tiny, thin pieces of wood stuck together. Closer investigation showed that they were covered in handwriting.

As the digging continued, they found hundreds of these writing tablets. When the Romans at the fort, or at the village, wanted to send a quick email, they couldn't, because email hadn't been invented.

So what they did instead was to write a message on a small piece of thin wood, and send it that way. Because - unlike the Brits of the time - the Romans were literate.

"Could you bring me some socks?" "We need more provisions for the troops." "I'm not going via Catterick, the roads are terrible that way."

"Would you like to come to my birthday party?" This one, unusually, was written by a woman and is the earliest example of female handwriting found in England!

Hundreds and hundreds of these tiny tablets were left scattered deep under the fort, discussing all sorts of subjects. When one cohort of Romans left, they started a bonfire to burn a big pile of them. But the reliable Northumberland rain soon put the fire out, so the tablets survived.

Again, the lack of oxygen has preserved them, and modern equipment can make the writing readable - though they are of course very difficult to interpret, being firstly written in Latin, secondly written in handwriting - often by people whose spelling wasn't brilliant - and thirdly, often using slang of the time, which, let's face it, we don't really understand. Though one writing tablet did describe the natives as "Brittunculi" -"wretched little Brits"- and we certainly understood THAT. Rude Romans. Pah!

Many of the tablets have now been deciphered and translated and they are fascinating. I spent ages poring over them - I do like historical documents that bring history to life in that way.

Both museums bring home in no uncertain terms how terrifying it must have been for the Britons when the Romans invaded. When they left, it took us a while to catch up with them, technology-wise. Well over a thousand years, in fact.


Blogger Silverback said...

The most amazing fact from the plethera that you gave us is that there is a lack of oxygen in Northumberland. Presumably the Romans took it all with them when they left. Bastards.
Thank you for this important tourist info and I shall be sure to bring a large tank of the Yorkshire variety with me when next I visit as we have it in abundance.

6:59 pm  
Blogger Daphne said...

Yes, it's always very educational, my blog. I'm sure you noticed that there's plenty of oxygen in Italy. And where did it all come from, eh? The Romans nicked it from Northumberland nearly two thousand years ago. As you say - - bastards.

8:46 pm  
Blogger Jan Blawat said...

Wow, you mean birthday parties weren't invented by Hallmark Cards? I wonder if they had cake and brought presents?

2:36 am  
Blogger rhymeswithplague said...

How positively unbuntified of them nasty Romans to purloin your Northumberland oxygen. My parents-in-law used to live on the corner of Stetson and Northumberland in Orlando, Florida, and they would probably still be doing it except that they have gone on to their reward. They don't need no oxygen any more.

1:18 pm  
Blogger Yorkshire Pudding said...

How many tablets did they have to take at a time? And how the hell did they swallow them? Were they prescribed or could the Roman imperialist swine buy these tablets over the counter? Did they visit The Communist's chemist's shop in Leeds? So many questions...

5:54 am  

Post a Comment

<< Home