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Karen Stewart (MOLA): Identifying Roman writing tablets

Originally I wasn’t going to do an entry for Day of Archaeology this year as I was scheduled to be doing almost exactly the same thing I was doing last year, assessing waterlogged flots from waterfront dumps, which would have been a bit boring. However, following a visit from a project manager at 9 this morning, I am now tasked with identifying the species of wood used in a selection of Roman writing tablets before they get sent to a Roman cursive writing specialist for analysis. These tablets are just some of the over 300 recovered  from a large urban site in the centre of London, which you can read about at the Walbrook Discovery Blog.

Before I start the writing tablets I assessed a couple of flots from the same site, as they were the last two in a box and I wanted to get it finished. They were very similar flots, full to bursting with bran, straw, moss, wood, some charcoal and waterlogged seeds. With those recorded I moved on to the writing tablets.

In order to identify wood to species, you need to section it along three planes (transverse, radial and tangential), mount them on a slide and observe them with a high powered microscope. You can then look at the microscopic features that can be used to narrow down the list of possible features. As these are Roman artefacts, there’s a broader range of species that might have been used, as they tended to import a lot of stuff from the continent.

Taking a wood sample of a Roman ruler for identification

Taking a wood sample of a Roman ruler for identification

Generally speaking, writing tablets are made of silver fir, but at this site we’ve had a bit of variety so I was looking forward to a surprise. Unfortunately, there were no surprises to be had and all 16 have indeed turned out to be silver fir. However, Michael Marshall, one of our Roman finds specialists, saw I was doing wood ID’s and ran over to get a sneaky ID on an artefact he was recording – a Roman ruler. That turned out to be beech, so I got a bit of variety in my results today after all.