THE Roman Army may have carved out one of the greatest empires in history, but visitors to a Northumberland outpost will find the pen has turned out to be just as mighty as the sword.
Letters unearthed at Vindolanda in Northumberland have returned to the Roman fort from the British Museum in London.
The letters, or thin wooden writing tablets, have been excavated at Vindolanda since 1973 and since then around 1,800 have been sent to the museum.
They went there because Vindolanda did not have the sophisticated facilities needed to display them.
But now the Northumberland attraction and its sister site, the Roman Army Museum at Carvoran, have just re-opened after a £6.2m transformation, backed by the Heritage Lottery Fund and One North East. And one of the first facilities to be created as part of the revamp was an atmospheric, vault-like room with the latest environmental technology to house the letters safely.
The British Museum agreed to loan nine letters to Vindolanda and they have now gone on show.
“We have now been able to meet the conditions required by the British Museum and the letters have their own dedicated room, with a very sophisticated, climate-controlled case,” said Patricia Birley, director of the Vindolanda Trust. “In the past we have sensed that visitors were disappointed when they couldn’t see the actual letters.”
The letters case is constantly monitored by computer which supplies a condition report every 15 minutes.
“We have had a fantastic reaction to the letters and to the new facilities from our first visitors this season,” said Patricia.
Vindolanda had to send a stream of condition reports for months to the British Museum before the letters were sent home to Northumberland. The letters are expected to be on loan for up to three years and it is hoped that will be followed by a rolling programme of similar loans.
One letter on show features members of the Tungrian (Belgian) garrison at Vindolanda called Gracilis, Audax and Similis registering a variety of goods, with quantities and prices, in the winter of AD 110-111. The prices are given in asses, a copper coin.
One item, 100 boot-nails, costing two asses, was booked as “for Gracilis”.
The others items include over 85lbs of salt and two kinds of meat, evidently goat and pork, and on two occasions, shortly before the New Year and again in February, a large container of beer, a metretes.
This contained the equivalent of about 50 pints, and cost only eight asses.
The Romans’ beer, called by a Celtic name, cervesa – as it still is in Spanish – was often brewed from barley or wheat.
As they didn’t use hops, the beer had to be drunk quickly before it went off, which appears not to have been a problem for the Tungrians.
Like the Dutch Batavian garrison at Vindolanda, who had their own regimental brewer, they certainly consumed beer regularly.
The revamped Vindolanda and Carvoran sites will be officially opened by the Duchess of Northumberland on April 19.
Page 2 - Glimpses of Roman life on the wall provided by letters >>
Glimpses of Roman life on the wall provided by letters
ONE of the letters on display at Vindolanda refers to the scola, or club, for junior officers.
It includes the lines: "And, all the same, I want it to be clear to you that I am neither withdrawing from the mess nor from the club, unless..."
Enough survives of this intriguing letter to tell us that the writer has been accused of something by his fellow non-commissioned officers and insists that he will not give way.
Presumably the prefect, or commander, had been called in to settle the dispute, which is why the letter was mixed in with other items from his files, piled up on a bonfire when the Batavian garrison was preparing to depart from Vindolanda.
Other letters include:
:: Part of a letter from the prefect’s residence (praetorium) in the 90s mentions a man, Curtius Super, who calls his correspondent by his family name, Cassius, perhaps to save having to write out the unusually long name Saecularis.
Other letters to Saecularis have survived.
One is from the eagle-bearer of the legion II Augusta, Vettius Adiutor, who calls Saecularis his "little brother".
It is thought that Saecularis was a senior centurion based in the commander’s residence, and dealing with supplies to the regiment, either the Second Tungrians or the Ninth Batavians.
:: An unknown man to be deported from the province in chains.
This tantalising fragment looks like a report to a friend or colleague at Vindolanda by a man who had attended a trial, perhaps at York or even London.
:: "Tomorrow, nice and early in the morning, come to Vindolanda."
This note from the prefect Cerialis must have been sent from Vindolanda and brought back there by the recipient, when he responded to the summons.
The reason why he has to come is only partly preserved.
But it could refer to a census of the native Britons, which is known to have taken place in the area at about this time.
:: Unusually elaborate handwriting in a letter to Flavius Cerialis, the Batavian commander.
The writer, Placidus, seems to have attempted to improve the look of his opening greeting with an ornate script.
:: A brother officer asks Flavius Cerialis to recommend a place to stay overnight where the horses are well treated.
:: An account of hobnails for shoes called "little gallics".
This came from a bonfire of letters and other material as the Ninth Cohort of Batavians prepared to leave Vindolanda in AD 104-105.
:: A report handed to the prefect of the Ninth Cohort of Batavians. These were regularly made by the deputy centurions, and "curators", who were probably quartermasters.