History Major Studies Ancient Roman Tablets

Jack Conley '25 researching the hand-written letter, along with other ancient tablets, for his Summer Undergraduate Research Institute (SURI) project titled, “The Vindolanda Tablets: Understanding the Roman Frontier in Northern Britain.”

Jack Conley ’25 conducts research on the Vindolanda tablets in Preston Library. –VMI Photo by Kelly Nye.

LEXINGTON, Va. June 17, 2024 — Could a 2,000-year-old birthday party invitation hold the key to military diplomacy? Jack Conley ’25, a history major at Virginia Military Institute, thinks it may, and is researching the hand-written letter, along with other ancient tablets, for his Summer Undergraduate Research Institute (SURI) project titled, “The Vindolanda Tablets: Understanding the Roman Frontier in Northern Britain.”   

Conley is studying the postcard-sized wooden tablets discovered at Vindolanda, the Roman legionary fort in northern Britain, near Hadrian’s Wall. Rome occupied Vindolanda from approximately 85 to 370 A.D., and during that timeframe it was home to roughly 2,000 people, including 400 military members, their families, and local merchants.  

In 1973, a young British archaeologist discovered the tablets that turned out to be the correspondence of the inhabitants of the fort, written in Latin, addressing everything from party invitations to legionary strength assessments to commercial orders for supplies.  

According to Conley, the tablets weave a fascinating and previously unseen picture of Roman life at the lower social levels, and can shed light on what military operations took place in order to keep the Roman border secure. “The great problem which often plagues the study of antiquity is the lack of apparent evidence, but with these tablets the researcher now has a primary account of everyday existence, and can use these surviving testimonies to derive fascinating conclusions about the Roman economy, border policy, and civil-military relations,” he said. 
Auxiliary soldiers to the Roman army were stationed at different posts along Hadrian’s Wall, and Vindolanda served as their base, providing them with supplies, as well as their replacements. “Auxiliary soldiers were not Roman citizens, but came from all across the Roman Empire, including what is modern day Spain, Belgium, and Germany. They all brought their own cultural practices, and in turn, they were Romanized, that is influenced by Roman culture, through their interaction with the local populace. It became a melting pot of sorts,” he explained. 
Conley shared that the wood tablets were well preserved because the soil in northern Britain is very anaerobic, meaning an absence of oxygen, which prevents decomposition. His primary database consisted of 890 tablets, but tablets are still being discovered and the number could grow to 10,000, though most are incomplete. “So even though there are 10,000 or so in existence, there are only a select few that can really tell us about the Roman Empire. One of the most interesting is a birthday party invitation from the wife of a Roman Centurion, to the wife of another Roman officer at a nearby fort. It is just an average social correspondence that happened to survive millennia. It is absolutely fascinating.”  
Conley is using his research to investigate how Romanization worked, both in practice, and as a kind of a byproduct. “One of the big debates in the scholarship community is whether or not the practice of Romanization was intentional, or if it was just happenstance. So studying these tablets will provide a clearer picture. But I really think that the contemporary applicability of this is how the Romans dealt with cultural diffusion, what those communities looked like as a melting pot, and how we can use those lessons.”  Conley plans to continue his research in the fall for his honors thesis. 

Maj. Christopher Blunda, assistant professor in the Department of History, is Conley’s advisor for the SURI project. He shared that Conley’s research stemmed from conversations about the lack of documentation for studying the Roman military and its social and economic interactions with people along the empire’s frontiers. “The Vindolanda tablets, although highly fragmented, afford Jack the opportunity to investigate these interactions, and to interpret them in conversation with existing scholarly works. Jack has done excellent work this summer, and I look forward to this research developing further over the coming academic year,” he said. 
The majority of the discovered tablets are now stored at The British Museum in London, and have been scanned. Excavation for more tablets continues at Vindolanda.   

Conley, from Moneta, Virginia, is a graduate of Franklin County High School in Rocky Mount. He is the son of Richard Conley and Kristn Roberts. Upon graduating, he hopes to work in the defense industry. 

Marianne Hause
Communications & Marketing


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