Writing Tablet

Artifacts September/October 2013

A tablet bearing a birthday party invite includes the earliest Latin script penned by a woman
(© The Trustees of the British Museum/Art Resource, NY)

What is it?

A writing tablet


Locally sourced wood and carbon ink


Roman Empire


Ca. A.D. 100


About the size of a postcard


Vindolanda Fort, Northumberland, England

On the Roman Empire’s cold and rainy northern frontier, in what is now Britain, sat the fort of Vindolanda. Beginning in 1973, excavators there began to find waterlogged tablets and fragments of tablets covered with Roman cursive writing. Once conserved and deciphered, the tablets provided rare details of the daily life and workings of the fort—lists of necessary supplies, including bacon, oysters, and honey; a letter to a soldier from home saying that more socks, sandals, and underwear have been sent; and descriptions of the native Britons the Romans came into contact with. Among the tablets—the oldest handwritten documents in Britain—survives an invitation (translated below) from the fort commander’s wife to her sister for a birthday bash:

Claudia Severa to her Lepidina, greetings. On 11 September, sister, for the day of the celebration of my birthday, I give you a warm invitation to make sure that you come to us, to make the day more enjoyable for me by your arrival, if you are present. Give my greetings to your Cerialis. My Aelius and my little son send him their greetings. I shall expect you, sister. Farewell, sister, my dearest soul, as I hope to prosper and hail. To Sulpicia Lepidina, wife of Cerialis, from Severa.

The commander Aelius’ wife, Claudia, would certainly have had someone to compose her correspondence, as evidenced by the professional hand used for most of the missive. But there is also a personal salutation written by Claudia herself (in bold above), which is the earliest known example of writing in Latin by a woman.

  • Artifacts September/October 2013

    Writing Tablet

    A tablet bearing a birthday party invite includes the earliest Latin script penned by a woman

    Read Article
    (© The Trustees of the British Museum/Art Resource, NY)
  • Around the World September/October 2013


    Read Article
    (Courtesy Izumi Niiro)
  • Digs & Discoveries September/October 2013

    No Changeups on the Savannah

    Read Article
    (Private Collection/J.T. Vintage/The Bridgeman Art Library, Werner Forman/Art Resource, NY, Pat Benic/Copyright Bettmann/Corbis/AP Images)
  • Features September/October 2013

    Wolf Rites of Winter

    Archaeologists digging a Bronze Age site on the Russian steppes are using evidence from language and mythology to understand a remarkable discovery

    Read Article
    (Courtesy David Anthony)