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A postcard from the Roman Empire
Belinda Artingstoll
Belinda Artingstoll
Special Features Producer
BBC Radio Cumbria

Roman stylus tablet, inscribed with the words "IN BRIT ANIA"

It might look like an insignificant piece of wood but when it was unearthed during an archaeological dig in Carlisle it sent shockwaves round the archaeological world.

It is the earliest written record of the use of the word Britannia, which gave this island of ours its name.

The wood dates back to the earliest years of the Roman occupation of Britain around AD 80-90.

Carlisle was then known as Luguvalium and it was a military settlement.

Sealed together

THE RE-ENACTOR
Roman re-enactor
Paul Roberts alias Corinthius from Staveley near Kendal is a Roman re-enactor. He knows a lot about life along Hadrian's Wall around the time the tablet was produced.

The Romans had been there about 20 years and had a built a fort near where Carlisle Castle now stands. The wood shows that from the early days Carlisle was part of the imperial world with its international communications and was exchanging letters with other parts of the Roman empire.

The piece of wood with "IN BRIT ANIA" inscribed on it is part of a writing tablet. The tablet was hollowed out on one side and filled with wax. The writer would then score words into the wax. Two tablets would then be sealed together with the address scratched on the outside.

The tablets could contain important news about affairs of state but many of them are more domestic and are sent by family members to soldiers serving along Hadrian's Wall and elsewhere. Because the wax does not survive the only clues to the letter's content is what might have come through the wax and onto the internal surface of the tablet.

Disintegrate

Jenny Jones, an archaeological conservator at Durham University, was responsible for conserving the piece of wood before it went on display. Even though she has seen hundreds of historical artefacts in her time, she remembers this one very clearly because of the writing on it. She says it was still covered in mud when it arrived at her office and did not look particularly special. But much to her surprise, as she washed the mud off, the letters "In Brit ania" started to appear.

Tim Padley, the keeper of archaeology at Tullie House Museum in Carlisle, says he was equally stunned because it was the first written proof that the Romans were using the word that early.

Tim Padley, the keeper of archaeology at Tullie House Museum
Tim Padley is the keeper of archaeology at Tullie House

The wood was wet when it was found on site and it had to be kept that way until it could be conserved properly. Once these fragile items are exposed to the air they can start to disintegrate. Jenny Jones says it was her job to replace the water with a chemical solution and then freeze-dry it.

Not native

So how do we know that it really is Roman and came from abroad? Could it just be a discarded piece of wood from a Cumbrian tree from another time period altogether?

Tim Padley says it was found during a dig on the site of the annexe to the Roman fort on Castle Street in Carlisle in the early 1980s. He says the wood came from the silver fir which was not native to this country.

Another reason this piece of wood must have come from outside the British Isles is the use of the word Britannia. After all, why else would you put the name of the country as part of the address?

Of all the items we are featuring as part of the History of the World this was the one I was least excited about when I first saw it. But once you start to delve into its story you begin to realise very quickly what a hugely important piece of wood this is!




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