By Alexander Meyer

Since Robin Birley first identified ink writing on thin wooden tablets from Vindolanda in 1973 over 850 ink tablets have been published from the site. These tablets have been a priceless resource for the study of daily life on the frontiers of the empire, of military administration, and of Roman writing practices. In the past fifty years the ink tablets have been lauded as some of the most important finds in the history of British archaeology and in Roman archaeology in general. Vindolanda, however, produces two types of writing tablets.

In addition to the ink tablets, over 340 wax tablets (also known as stylus tablets) have been discovered at Vindolanda. Like the ink tablets, wax tablets are made of wood, but they are much thicker than the ink tablets and were covered with wax in which letters were incised with a stylus to form words and texts. These texts could later be smoothed out and the tablets could be reused. Unfortunately, the wax from these tablets rarely survives. This makes it very difficult to recover text from the tablets. Scholars are forced to examine the faint traces of texts left in the wood by over-enthusiastic writers in order to read what was written in the wax. This is, in fact, so difficult that none of the wax tablets from Vindolanda have yet been published.

Nevertheless, a team of scholars, with support from the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada (SSHRC), is now experimenting with new photographic and scanning techniques to try to recover texts from the wax tablets from Vindolanda. As part of this project, the research team, consisting of Barbara Birley (The Vindolanda Trust), Dr. Alexander Meyer (The University of Western Ontario), Dr. Alex Mullen (The University of Nottingham) and Dr. Roger Tomlin (Oxford University), together with James Miles (Archaeovision), conducted a scanning and photographic campaign on 19 wax tablets from Vindolanda in the fall of 2021. Since then, the team has been analyzing their result, experimenting with other methods of imaging and searching for new technologies.

So far, the team’s results are promising, but wax tablets have long been challenging to work with. Dr Tomlin was able to recover texts from about a quarter of the wax tablets that were discovered during the Bloomberg excavations in London and similar recovery rates been achieved at other sites. The team at Vindolanda hopes to be able to match or exceed this success rate at Vindolanda and to apply new technologies to other collections.

The team will meet again in June of this year to discuss their progress. They hope to produce new texts of several tablets in the next year.