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Synecdoche is a powerful, expressive linguistic device

The Inquisition by Ronan McDonnell - Contents Page
The Inquisition by Ronan McDonnell - Semper Quarens - Always Looking


History doesn’t necessarily write itself – a choice, often conscious, is made of what to retain and hand down. When that choice is bypassed, things get really interesting.

The Vindolanda tablets, and the extensive site itself, took one such circuitous route. They are important historical records of the more pedestrian aspects of an empire whose reach was wide and whose grip was fast.

In 1970s a horde of impossibly fragile artifacts from Roman Britain came to light at Hadrian’s Wall. The site was bought by an archaeologist by the name of Eric Birle. His sons still run and excavate the site today.

A somewhat fanciful story is told of how Flavius Cerialis, a camp commander at the time, upon hearing of his and his troops’ redeployment to other, more strategically important parts of the empire, set about disposing of anything that would not be brought along.

Birthday Party

However, you would have to imagine this particular man was not the exemplary and adroit Roman military commander that comes to mind when we picture the huge empire and its armies. In fact, it seems he was even incapable fire to his own rubbish properly. The burning and looting, raping and pillaging of any self-respecting ravaging horde must have been utterly incomprehensible to him. Or maybe he was just lazy.

But we should thank him. And profusely so. This partially burned waste is a historical record of the greatest value.

The Tablets Overview

The horde contains a huge number of handwritten fragments on extremely thin, folded, wooden tablets. The everyday nature of these was a revelation. Until these tablets were found scholars worked with few writings on the mundane, which had been survived through to posterity. We knew about how the common people but that knowledge was not personal in any way. So lacking was our understanding that the distinctive handwriting scripts were unfamiliar – this was a kind of shorthand used for epistolary communication (an awkward and pretentious blogger’s contrivance meaning “letters”). It was still Latin, just not the formal script used by the stonemasons who created the works most resistant to wear over time.

The subject matter is varied, as you might expect from a random collection of everyday writings, containing everything from task lists to inventories, writing lessons to personal letters.

Their Historical Context and Importance

Rome was an empire that positively revelled in documenting and celebrating its achievements. Vast amounts of Latin literature still inform communication and the arts globally today. Architects still look back to the grandeur of Rome. Columns, amphitheatres, arches and more triumphal edifices still dot the ancient imperial lands. Rome was no shrinking violet. This triumphalist entities only tell part of the story, the one that the rulers would have wanted us to hear. And that is why this alternate voice is so powerful. The fact that it details the lives of true Romans but at the Empire’s boundary only adds to this.

Vindolanda Site by Flickr User James Laing

Vindolanda Excavations by Flickr User James Laing

The Site

The camp formed before Hadrian’s Wall, the first line of defence against the Picts. The garrison’s job was to, along with defending that particular section of the wall, police the locals, promote trade and spread Roman cultural and economic influence. The site is so huge excavations are expected to be ongoing until well into the next century!

The camp was rebuilt many times before and after the tablets were produced. The methods employed by the Romans for this involved demolition of existing structures and flattening them compacted into the soil. This created a series of anaerobic layers which were inhospitable to the processes of biological decay.

In fact these layers were so sterile and effective in their preservation that when the tablets are unearthed today, and exposed to air they are only legible for minutes before fading. Thankfully the ink residue can be seen clearly in infra-red light (as in the image at the top of this page).

Three Tablets – sample translations

Tablet 291 – Birthday Invite
Hi Lepidina, Claudia Severa here! Sister, I am celebrating my birthday on the 11th of September. I would love if you could join us, which would improve the day no end. Give my greetings to Cerialis. My husband Aelius and are little boy send their love. See you soon, favourite sister, all going well.

Tablet 302 – Shopping List
…2 jars of bruised beans > 20 chickens > 100 apples (only if they look nice, and are cheap) > 100 or maybe 200 eggs > 8 loads of garum* > a jar of olives. Bring all this back to Verecundus’ house.
*Garum was a very salty sauce made from fermented anchovies. As disgusting as this description is, the sauce is really tasty, especially to add depth of flavour to pasta sauces or as a pizza topping. It is still made by Geo. Watkins and Co.

Tablet 118 – Writing Exercise
TA .VBEM m2 seg. uacat

This tablet fragment appears to have been unsent and then used by a child to practice their writing. In capitals they have written a partial line from Virgil’s Aeneid

See the tablets online
The offical website for the site
The Story of Archaeology in 050 Great Discoveries, Justin Pollard, Quercus, 2007
Salt – A World History, Mark Kurlansky, Vintage, 2003

This article was posted by on Monday, May 24th, 2010 at 04:03.
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