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Superdceded by a website
on 3 April 2010
Perhaps, like me, you have heard of the Vindolanda tablets, the thin strips of wood that have been discovered at the archaeological site in Northumberland? There's the oft-quoted one about the woman inviting her friend from a neighbouring fort to a birthday celebration, of course, but what do the others say? There are supposed to be hundreds of them, so what do they all say and what do they mean?
This book sets out to address those two questions. The main part for me was the second half of the book, the texts of 50 of the tablets that had been translated so far (they are written in a kind of shorthand, not the classical Latin you may have written so laboriously at school!) I wanted to read what people who lived 2000 years ago had written, what their equivalent of an e-mail message was! The first half of the book is an account by the historian, Professor Bowman, of the significance of the tablets and what they tell us about life in Roman Britain.
It might strike you as odd that the text of the tablets comes after the interpretation in the book but the sad truth is .... the tablets themselves aren't very dramatic. Maybe that shouldn't be a surprise - if you took a random selection of 50 e-mails sent from an office building in 21st Century Britain they probably wouldn't be that interesting, either, but they might at least have included a few jokes or personal ones. Our ancestors come across as a bit humourless and obsessed with image and prestige. That's why Prof Bowman needs to write the interpretation first, to put them into context and I was left feeling I had strayed into the historian's workshop round the back, where they take the lumps of ore and turn them into nuggets of precious metal.
I'm not a historian so Prof Bowman's interpretation did help, but the same problem applies - the tablets are helping the picture we have of the times by suggesting the shading of different colours to use, rather than in terms of dramatic surprises. You can imagine how exciting this is to an archaeologist or historian but for the general reader, maybe there isn't enough to justify the price of the book.
As a footnote, there is now an excellent website where the tablets can be viewed online, with accompanying notes:
I would direct you to this instead because this seems to cover the material of the book, plus more recent updates.