Britain's Oldest Dated Document Is Found
It was written 2,000 years ago and preserved in mud
By Newser Editors and Wire Services
Posted Jun 1, 2016 12:11 PM CDT
A piece of wood with the Roman alphabet written on it in, in London.   (John Stillwell)

(Newser) – Archaeologists say they've discovered hundreds of writing tablets from Roman London—including the oldest handwritten document ever found in Britain—in a trove that provides insight into the city's earliest history as a busy commercial town, per the AP. Researchers from Museum of London Archaeology uncovered more than 400 wooden tablets during excavations in London's financial district for the new Bloomberg headquarters. In Roman times, the tablets were covered in wax, on which words could be inscribed with a stylus. The wax has not survived, but some of the writing penetrated to the wood and can still be read. So far, 87 have been deciphered, including one addressed "in London, to Mogontius" and dated to AD 65-80—the earliest written reference to the city, which the Romans called Londinium.

"It's the first generation of Londoners speaking to us," archaeologist Sophie Jackson says, calling the find "hugely significant." The Romans founded London after their invasion of Britain in AD 43. The documents show that only a few years later, it was already a thriving town of merchants and traders. The records include references to beer deliveries, food orders, and legal rulings. One tablet—an ancient IOU in which one freed slave promises to repay another—carries the date Jan. 8, AD 57, making it Britain's earliest dated hand-written document. The wooden tablets were preserved in the wet mud of the Walbrook—then a river, now a buried stream. "The water keeps out the oxygen that would normally cause decay," Jackson says, comparing the sticky mud to "the ash of Pompeii or the lava of Herculaneum."