Ancient London calling

We have previously written about some of the most valuable books of a rare origin. Once again, the world of the past has presented us with a stark reminder of the relevance and omnipresence of our collective history as well as the importance of preserving it.

This time, ancient wooden documents have been unearthed that contain the oldest mention of London. Their age is estimated at around 2000 years and references “Londinio Mogontio” or Mogontius in London, the presumptive addressee of the text. The lucky discovery was made during an excavation for the new European headquarters of Bloomberg. They were found underneath an office building from the 1950s and have miraculously survived all this time in wet mud, which is itself a remnant of the long lost river “Walbrook” that used to empty into the Themse.

In our line of work, we had the privilege of scanning truly old books, scriptures and documents and have grown accustom to their age. But even we have to stand in awe at the historic weight of this recent finding. It is easy to forget just how long our collective history actually is, when one regards a bible from the 17th century as “ancient”. This emphasises more than before, just how easily these “recent” historic documents can perish and just how crucial the task of digitising them has become.

The director of the Museum of London Archaeology remarked in an Interview with the Guardian, that “they represent the first generation of Londoners speaking to us”. It is no doubt a phenomenal find, which tells, among others, the story of a successful business owner, Domitius Tertius Bracearius, who reportedly operated throughout Britain during the first century AD. Tertius was fairly wealthy and was known to historians for writing tables from Carlisle.

He is by no means the only famous name among the newfound tablets. The Sixth Cohort of Nervii, a title every Briton should have heard of, was a military leader who opposed Rome´s influence on the island after the death of Nero.

What came as a surprise to many, was the fact that one of these tablets included the earliest ever recorded use of the phrase “per panem et salem”, which translated into English means “by bread and salt”. The meaning of that phrase is still open for debate, but the aforementioned expert, Roger Tomlin, ventured an educated guess. According to him this should be interpreted as a request for money. Something along the lines of “You´ve had your free lunch, now I need some money from you”.

Roger Tomlin used his expertise in early Roman writing to decipher 87 of the 405 pieces of handwritten tablets, no small feat considering they were etched in beeswax 2000 years ago, which has dissolved leaving only scratches in the wood.

These tables served a plethora of purposes. From legal documents to a means to practice alphabet and numerals. Previously only around 19 such tablets had been discovered. So far this glimpse into the city´s past has revealed the names of approximately 100 individuals. These tablets hold indescribable historic value for many reasons, not least of which due to their incredible scarcity. But even records of just a few centuries ago have mostly disappeared because of the slow but inevitable disintegration of the materials. This is why now, more than ever, it is important to preserve the past for the future.