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Oldest writing found in the Netherlands deciphered again

Tolsumís Roman tablet dated 29 A.D.

Tags: Excerpts from the Windmill

LEEUWARDEN - New computer techniques have helped researchers at the universities of Oxford and Leyden decipher the oldest piece of writing ever found in the Netherlands. The wooden writing tablet surfaced during excavation work at the Frisian hamlet of Tolsum in 1917. At the time, scholars transcribed the Roman era Latin inscription as being a contract for the sale of an ox.

Leyden papyrologist Klaas Worp, who compared the inscription with other Roman era documents, discovered that the Roman text dated from February 23, 29 AD, and that it actually acknowledges a debt payable to the slave Carus or his heir.

Romans wrote their documents in wax poured onto a wooden writing tablet but the writer of this credit note had pressed his stilus so hard that the text inscribed in the wood as well. Oxfordís technology reproduced the text so well that the copy is clearer than the original, which was first erroneously deciphered by Groningen scholar C.W. Vollgraff in 1917.


Although Vollgraff's text showed many peculiarities of formula, syntax and nomenclature, it has always been accepted as basically sound. One of the reasons for this was that it made sense in the context of the history of ĎFrisia.í Roman historian Tacitus reports in his Annals IV.72 ff that in AD 29 the Frisian tribe revolted over heavy taxes on the hides of oxen.

The tablet was sent to Oxford in November 2007 by the Fries Museum and the Frisian Historical and Literary Centre to remove any lingering questions about the original text. Vollgraff placed the text in either the year 29 or 116 A.D., based on the name of a Roman official used to date the document. Romans dated their documents by naming the consul who then happened to be the governor. In 1998, Groningen scholar E. Slob, who carbon dated the tablet, proposed some improvements to the Vollgraff translation.


To decifer the text on the tablet, Oxford researchers took photos of the text from different angles. The images show light hitting the wood from different directions, altering the impression of the inscription.

Full details of the new findings of the Tolsum tablet will be published in the Journal of Roman Studies later this year. The wooden tablet itself will be on display at a number of museums in Leeuwarden, Nijmegen and Amsterdam.

The hamlet Tolsum is located between the villages Tzum and Lollum, near the Frisian city of Franeker.