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Handwritten ancient Roman letters found in London archaeological dig

By Martin Smith
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Handwritten ancient Roman letters found in London archaeological dig
Latin expert Roger Tomlin deciphers the tablets using photography with raking light and microscopic analysis. Photo courtesy MOLA

LONDON, June 1 (UPI) -- Hundreds of waxed writing tablets, dating back to around A.D. 43, have been found during an archaeological dig in London.

The artifacts were discovered during excavations for Bloomberg's new European headquarters in the Mansion House neighborhood of the British capital.

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They include the earliest handwritten documents found in Britain, archaeologists have revealed.

Among the 410 wooden tablets uncovered, 87 have been deciphered, including one addressed 'In London, to Mogontius'.

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It is dated A.D. 65-80, making it now the earliest historical reference to London. Previously it was thought the first reference to London came 50 years later by historian Tacitus.

Archaeologists also discovered a written record of money -- appropriately enough as the dig is in the City of London's financial district -- which bears the date January 8, 57 AD.

It is thought that the tablets were used as a messaging system -- the email of the Roman world -- to communicate business and legal dealings.

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"The tablets are hugely significant, they are the largest single assemblage of wax writing tablets found in Britain and what's particularly special about them is they are so early," said Sophie Jackson, archaeologist and director at independent charitable company Museum of London Archaeology.

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Other items found included wicker baskets, coins, pottery, wood and leather, many remarkably preserved, due to them being trapped in soaking mud. Several had dates on them.

The documents were written on wooden tablets which would have been covered in blackened beeswax. Once excavated, the tablets were kept in water, then cleaned and freeze-dried.

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One tablet is a contract from October 21, 62 AD, to bring "twenty loads of provisions" from Verulamium -- modern day St Albans, Hertfordshire -- to London, a year after the revolt by Iceni Queen Boudica.

Oxford University classicist Roger Tomlin said that the writings also included references to beer deliveries.

"It was the new wild west frontier of the Roman Empire, with people streaming in behind the Roman army and exploiting the new province," he explained.

More than 700 artefacts from the excavation are expected to go on display in the new Bloomberg building when it opens late next year.

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