Vindolanda-Roman-fort

Wish you were here? This is Vindolanda, where archaeologists have found hundreds of wooden tablets on which survive the oldest known examples of handwriting in all of Britain. Today we’re going to make our own!

The Vindolanda Tablets are thin, postcard-sized wooden sheets which were folded in half to make two ‘pages’ and then strung together into a sort of book. They were used as writing paper and sent out like modern mail across Roman Britain. Archaeologists found hundreds of these little tablets at the Vindolanda site and they have helped us to learn about life in Roman Britain.

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An invitation to the birthday party of Claudia Severa (Photo: Vindolanda.com)

Here’s an activity to make your own version of the Vindolanda tablets. When you’re finished you can even send them in the mail like postcards! It’s a great hands-on activity that kids will love to do, and also great for helping kids imagine themselves as people living in the past and writing letters, just like the Romans did!

How to make your own Roman Postcards in 8 simple steps!

You Will Need:

For the Tablets:

  • 4-6 cut out pieces (approx 20 cm x 8 cm) of balsa wood, birch plywood, or cardstock
  • Thread or dental floss if you are tying the postcards together
  • Envelopes and stamps if you’re mailing your postcards

For the Ink:

  • A tealight or votive candle
  • match or firestarter
  • scraps of dry wood (chop sticks, balsa wood) and cardboard or paper
  • old tweezers
  • old tiny jam jar with lid
  • old tray as a work area and for catching the burnt material
  • knife
  • water, just a few ml
  • toothpick or skewer
  • school glue or craft glue

Shortcuts:

If you’re short on time or supplies, you can use cardboard instead of wood, and pens or paint instead of homemade ink. Whichever method you use, it’s still fun, so let’s get cracking!

Step 1. Chop Wood!

Most craft stores and some home/hardware stores have balsa wood, birch plywood, or other thin wood sold in sheets. These craft woods can be cut with scissors if you are careful, or an adult can use an Exacto knife to make small panels for your postcards.

Step 2. Make Fire!

Find some scraps of dry wood, cardboard, or paper. Burn these to generate ash and carbonized wood. You can use tweezers to hold your little scraps over an open candle flame for maximum (supervised) excitement.

Step 3. Get Dirty!

tget dirty
Using your tweezers and a knife approved by a parent, scrape the carbonized black bits off the wood onto a plate. The burnt bits will be nice and powdery and easy to scrape off. It’s good messy fun!

Step 4. Get Wet!

vindolanda6Carefully scrape the powders into containers (ours were little old jam jars with lids). Using a toothpick or skewer to stir the mixture, add water a drop or two at a time to make a dark black paint-like liquid. You only need a couple teaspoonfuls to have plenty for your postcards. 

Step 5. Get Sticky!

This step is important – add .25 or .5 teaspoons of school glue or any craft glue to your paint. This keeps the charcoal powder from brushing off your postcard after the paint dries.

Fun Fact: The Romans would have mixed their charcoal with sticky tree sap to make it into ink.

Step 6. Get Educated!

romancursiveHave a look at the Roman alphabet or  just use the language you speak at home to write a message. Learn about the types of things Vindolanda residents wrote about: attackers, birthday parties, food, the weather …. underwear……..

Step 7. Get Cracking!

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Write your own postcards. You can use single sheets or you can punch holes in them and string them together like the Romans did. You can pencil in your message first if you’d like, then go over the letters with your homemade paint. Allow the panels to dry completely! If you buy extra postage, you can put these in an envelope and mail them to someone, just like a resident of Vindolanda or anywhere in the Roman Empire!

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We hope you enjoy this project as much as we did – Evelyn (age 10) and her mom, Susan

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Susan Dole

Susan Dole

Susan is an archaeologist-at-heart and mum living in Silicon Valley. She is a huge fan of DigVentures and is kicking off her return to the dirt with a family visit to DigVentures' Barrowed Time, in the very town where her dad grew up. She loves walking, writing and teaching history.

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