This writing tablet, unearthed at 1 Poultry in 1996 (ONE94), has just been read for the first time in 19 centuries. Written for a rich Roman bureaucrat, it is the only deed of sale of a slave to have been found in Britain.
It is made of silver fir and measures about 14 by 11 cm. Originally it was coated with black wax in which the scribe wrote with a stilus, but now his writing survives only as scratches in the wood. The whole text was written on three tablets bound together, of which this was the first. It can be dated to around AD 80-120 and was found in rubbish beside the Walbrook.
To appreciate the purchaser, we must remember how Britannia was governed. While the legate ran the army and civil administration, an independent procurator looked after imperial estates and the provincial finances.
His office was staffed by imperial slaves and freedmen who handled large sums of money, in the process making fortunes of their own. Vegetus, who was strictly speaking the property of one of these slaves, made enough to buy his own slave. She cost him 600 denarii, two years' salary for a Roman soldier.
And what about his purchase, this girl from Gaul? Fortunata ('lucky') may have been a foundling brought up in slavery, but paradoxically her sale might have led to freedom - even marriage - if Vegetus himself was promoted out of slavery.
This article by Dr Roger Tomlin (Wolfson College, Oxford) first appeared in Archaeology Matters No 19, March 2003 and fully published by R S O Tomlin, 'The Girl in Question: a new text from Roman London', Britannia 34 (2003), 41-51.
For more information about slaves, see Slavery in Roman Londoners and Roman slavery on the Learning site.