Bryn Mawr Classical Review

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2004.05.19

Alan K. Bowman, J. David Thomas, The Vindolanda Writing Tablets: Tabulae Vindolandenses III.   London:  The British Museum Press, 2003.  Pp. 184; pls. 24.  ISBN 0-7141-2249-1.  £75.00.  

Reviewed by Roger Wright, University of Liverpool (
Word count: 631 words

This is the third volume in the series which is publishing the ink texts found on thin wooden tablets at Vindolanda, near Hadrian's Wall in Northern England, and now preserved in the British Museum in London. The first and second volumes, edited by the same two scholars, were published in 1983 and 1994, and have become famous. The texts and discussion in this third volume have lost the surprise value of the others, but are, of course, a valuable and important professional contribution to knowledge.

The first tablet was found in 1973. The nature of the tablets found in the 1970s, the contents of the documents and letters, and their palaeography, were minutely analysed in the first volume. Even so, the second volume re-edited almost all of those, together with the 194 new texts found in the 1980s. Even after the usually necessary application of infra-red photography, deciphering and understanding these texts is difficult, and the editors have increasingly stressed their debt to Professor J. N. Adams for his linguistic assistance.

The fort was occupied between c.AD 85 and AD 130. Very few of the documents and letters are explicitly dated internally, but prosopographical and archaeological evidence usually supplies a date. In the Introduction to the second volume, the editors commented that "The range of subject-matter and content is truly astonishing, especially in the context of the frontier area of a province which had no long history of urban or literate culture." There are echoes of Virgil, for example. The range will perhaps astonish readers less now than it did then; a more bullish view of Roman literacy has become more fashionable in the last twenty years.

In the Introduction to the second volume the editors also referred to further tablets which had been discovered after 1991, which they did not include in that volume; those form the subject matter of the present third volume. As before, the texts are transcribed, translated into English, and discussed in minute detail. There are 147 texts here, and 133 further small fragments (which the editors call "Descripta"), bringing the consecutive overall numeration to 853. 53 are reproduced photographically in the plates at the end of the volume, with the help of digital scans. These are thus more legible than in the previous two volumes, but as ever with Roman texts, the skill manifested in their decipherment is remarkable. New technology means that it is an ongoing process; 87 of the texts of the previous volume are slightly corrected in an appendix in this volume (155-62), but changes are all the time being presented on the website. Dr John Pearce, research assistant in this respect, worked sufficient miracles to be rewarded with a place on the title page. Editing the smaller number of stilus texts is still seen as too difficult for the moment, although it is foreseen for the next volume. Professor Adams has also been publishing many careful thoughts elsewhere, most notably in "The new Vindolanda writing-tablets", Classical Quarterly 53 (2003), 530-75.

The documents include a lengthy list of the geese and chickens supplied to the commander in 102-104 A.D (no. 581, presented in Plates 2 and 3). One of the letters (no. 670, presented in Plate 22) seems to be from the last twenty years of the second century A.D., in a markedly different handwriting. But overall the content is not as remarkable as in the earlier collections, although the editors are able to include an updated list of commodity prices (15-16).

There is to be a fourth volume, not confined to Vindolanda; and for completeness, those who acquired the first two will need to acquire this one. The scholarship manifested in this enterprise remains one of the wonders of the Modern World, as the texts themselves are of the Ancient.

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