Masclus

The letter from Masclus
What are the earliest written historical records from the North East have emerged from a batch of new letters discovered at a Northumberland Roman fort.

The writing tablets are from, and to, Julius Verecundus, the first commander of the original wooden fort at Vindolanda before the building of Hadrian's Wall.

This fort dates from between 85-92AD and Verecundus was the colonel in charge of the First Cohort of Tungrians, from what is modern-day Belgium.

Northumberland

Map showing location of Northumberland
A total of 25 fragmentary Verecundus wooden letters were unearthed in 2017 at Vindolanda, which was followed by two years of conservation work and painstaking deciphering and research by experts.

Now the contents of four of the letters have been revealed.

"This collection of correspondence both to and from Verecundus gives us an unparalleled insight into the daily life of a commanding officer stationed on the most northern edge of the Roman Empire nearly 40 years before Hadrian's Wall," said Vindolanda Trust chief executive Andrew Birley.

"The letters give us an insight into the humanity of these people, which is much the same as it is today. This the real power of these documents.

"The contents of these new tablets are remarkable not because of any sensational statements or revelations, but because of their unfiltered account of everyday life.

Verecundus

The trench where the Verecundus letters were found
"The correspondence includes a complaint about an outburst of anger in the workplace and delivery arrangements for vegetables and other supplies to the frontier. Within the letters there are numerous individuals.

"Writing tablets are not abstract things, they easily cross the great distance of time and cultures and the thing which stands out, apart from the sheer variety and detail, is the humanity of the people writing them.

"It is this humanity which allows us to really enjoy, marvel and understand the people of the letters. They are, in that way, utterly amazing."

Dr Roger Tomlin, one of the team of specialists who analysed the texts, said: "Deciphering Julius Verecundus's letters has been a privilege more than 19 centuries later.

"To be looking over the colonel's shoulder as he deals with his correspondence - his vegetables and plant-cuttings, a wrong key, a missing knife, the pompous attempt by a fellow colonel to get one of his sergeants into trouble. How lucky we have been."

One of the letters to Verecundus is from an individual who has featured in other Vindolanda letters.

Masclus is a decurion (cavalry detachment commander), who has appeared in several letters previously uncovered at Vindolanda, writing to different commanders - sometimes for more beer to be sent to his men.
Vindolanda

Writing tablets on display at Vindolanda
In the latest letter he is requesting leave from Verecundus for five men, who he describes as Raetian (Swiss) and Vocontii (southern France) tribesmen.

Andrew said that the letter indicates the multi-cultural make up of garrisons on the early northern frontier.

The span of letters in which Masclus appears also shows that, while commanders and garrisons come and go, he is stationed along the frontier for at least 15 years.

A letter from Secundus, who may have been of similar rank to Verecundus, complains about "little outbursts of anger" from a centurion called Decuminus . "It suggests that this needs to be sorted out and that it merits a telling-off," said Andrew.

"It shows the dynamic of day-to-day life and the job of Verecundus in keeping the peace and stopping people fighting with each other."
Vindolanda
© newcastle chronicle
Director of Excavations at Vindolanda, Andrew Birley
Experts who worked on the letter say: "We may guess that officers were affronted by something which Decuminus, a centurion of infantry in another unit, had said or done, or left undone. Secundus was evidently trying to put things right, and also (probably) to get Decuminus into trouble with his commanding officer."

Verecundus also receives a letter from friends of a soldier called Crispus, asking that he be put on lighter duties, such as that of a 'mensor', or land surveyor.

A letter from Verecundus himself to his slave, called Audax, is an "ear bashing," says Andrew.

Verecundus writes: "Send in the morning part of the load which I have today dispatched to you with two loose horses ... lest it be damaged by the conveyance in which the greens will be brought, that is the shoots both of cabbage and of turnip, and send them. Also you sent another key with the box than you should have done."

The relationship between the Vindolanda Trust and the British Museum has been further strengthened by an agreement that enables recently discovered writing tablets to remain at Vindolanda on a fixed-term loan for further research and display.

From spring next year, the public will be able to see these documents at Vindolanda, where they were unearthed, for the first time.

Patricia Birley, chair of Impact for the Vindolanda Trust, said "We are extremely grateful to the British Museum for facilitating a loan which enables the public to view these nationally and internationally important objects at their site of origin. The remaining tablets will also stay on loan at Vindolanda for further research."

A specially designed case to house the new tablets will be sited in the same secure room in the Vindolanda Museum as a current display of nine tablets, also on loan from the British Museum. Accompanying exhibition panels will highlight the messages from the tablets that shed even more light on life at Vindolanda some 2000 years ago.

Cath Homer, Northumberland County Council cabinet member for culture, arts, leisure and tourism, said: "We are delighted to be able to support the Vindolanda Trust and provide funding for this internationally significant project, to bring more of the Vindolanda tablets to life for visitors.

"Our own campaign Discover our Land is all about telling the stories about Northumberland, its people, history and heritage and why it so special, and the Vindolanda tablets are some of the oldest and most fascinating stories the county has to share."

The Vindolanda writing tablet research group is an international group of scholars who have come together to read, contextualise and preserve these unique documents from the site. They include academics from Oxford University, Nottingham University, Germany and Canada, as well as curators and specialists from the British Museum and Vindolanda.

The letters will be published in the academic journal Britannia, which can be viewed here