Now that Mary Beard's 'Meet the Romans' series has, alas, ended, I've been reflecting on her achievement in making epigraphy--one of the driest disciplines--not merely exciting but televisual. It is unusual, and she and the BBC both deserve credit for it.
It is not ever thus. A couple of years ago 'Time Team' held an audience vote to decide the most important find from Roman Britain. I don't remember all the items, and, indeed, so un-memorable was the winner that it's already disappeared from the first four or five pages of Google. There was the bas-relief from the Antonine Wall, I remember, the one that proudly proclaimed the (short-lived) Roman expansion into Scotland, which is now in the Museum of Scotland in Edinburgh. I think the Medusa head from Bath was on the list as well, and the beautiful Ribchester cavalry helmet, and the sculptures from the Temple of Mithras in London--all beautiful objects, and if you're not familiar with them, google them and have a look. What struck me at the time, though, was that the most important Roman find wasn't even on the list.
I can see why 'Time Team' didn't like them. I have to admit that they don't look like much. You can't even read them in their natural blackened state: the texts only emerged when they were photographed using every available trick of light and filtering; when they did emerge, their cursive scrawl was so hard to read that at first some people doubted whether they were even in Latin. Nonetheless, few historians would deny their enormous significance.
To begin with, until they were found it was thought that--as their discoverer, Robin Birley put it-- 'the prospect of ink writing from the Roman period being found in Britain was. . .impossible.' There were inscriptions, some graffiti, a handful of references in Roman texts, but actual Roman documents? They would surely have rotted away in the damp climate! It's counter-intuitive that waterlogged soil, sealed from the air, can actually preserve wood and leather.
Next, there's the form of the tablets: thin sheets of wood, scored down the center and folded. There had been a couple of obscures references in Roman texts, but not enough to shake the view that Romans generally wrote on papyrus or not wax tablets. The Vindolanda finds were the first indication that in northerly climes the Romans normally wrote on wood. More and more tablets have turned up in other sites, now that archaeologists know what to look for--though none as well-preserved or as rich as the finds from Vindolanda.
The main thing that makes the Vindolanda tablets so important, though, is what is written on them: a glimpse into Roman life on a border fort that we simply couldn't have obtained any other way than time travel. Letters of recommendation; letters of complaint; lists of supplies, with prices. There's an 'intelligence' report about the local British warriors, dismissing them contemptuously as ill-equipped 'Brittunculi'--a sneering diminutive. There is a letter to an ordinary soldier from his family, saying that they've sent him socks, two pairs of sandals, and two sets of underpants--'subligariorum duo'. Underpants! Now we know what all those stern centurions wore beneath their tunics! This is the only Latin reference to them!
The letter I love most, and perhaps the most famous of them all, is an invitation to a birthday party. As Birley points out, it would be remarkable anywhere it was found, because it contains the earliest writing known to have been penned by a Roman woman: while the main text has been penned smoothly by a scribe, Claudia Severa has added a note in the corner in her own spiky handwriting: 'Sperabo te, soror. Vale, soror, anima mea, ita valeam, karissima et (h)ave.'--'I will expect you, sister, Farewell, sister, my soul, as I hope to prosper, dearest, and greetings'.
You still get plenty of textbooks telling you that Roman girls didn't go to school and that few of them outside the most aristocratic circles would have been able to read : here we have a woman on the far fringe of the Roman Empire, the wife of the prefect of a mere auxiliary cohort--a man who was himself probably the first in his family to obtain the citizenship--sending gushing personal notes to her friend. Its mere existence puts that notion of female illiteracy in doubt. Beat that, you marble statue-hunters!