The Story of the Bloomberg Writing Tablets

NextShoot, a corporate video production company in London, was privileged to be asked to produce a film documenting the discovery, preservation and deciphering of Britain’s earliest, largest and most significant collection of Roman wax writing tablets. The collection was discovered 40 feet below street level during the archaeological excavations for Bloomberg’s new European headquarters in the City of London.

The story of what are now known as the Bloomberg Writing Tablets began almost 2000 years ago with the Roman invasion of Britain in 43 AD. The establishment and growth of a trading centre on the site of what is now The City is well known, but the discovery of hundreds of writing tablets, from which much text has been deciphered, enriches our knowledge of the location during this period and depicts a surprisingly cosmopolitan city founded on trade, supported by Roman law and in many ways not unlike the London of today.

Besides a documentary style video, our video agency packaged footage for distribution to global media organisations as part of an Electronic Press Kit. This EPK was used by international News outlets - both online and on television - including on the BBC on its flagship News at Ten show.
All over the Roman Empire citizens used wax writing tablets much as we might use paper, Microsoft Word or email today - for making notes, creating legal documents and sending correspondence.

Writing tablets were hewn from the staves of enormous casks of wine. The staves were sawn into rectangular shaped pairs and a recess was chiselled into each one and filled with a thin layer of beeswax blackened with charcoal. Typically these two tablets would be tied together with leather string to form a hinge, thereby creating a portable ‘book’. Text was then inscribed into the wax using a stylus, a sharp metal implement.

Although the wax, poured not long after the death of Christ, hasn’t survived the subsequent millenia, the wood is surprisingly well preserved. This is because the tablets were uncovered in the wet mud of the Walbrook, a river that flowed through the area in the Roman period, but that is now buried deep below street-level. In this damp environment oxygen could not reach the tablets and the wood was protected from decay.

When text was scratched into the wax the stylus would sometimes leave a mark in the soft wood below. However, as writing tablets were often reused, several layers of overlapping text might build up, making it particularly challenging to decipher meaningful words or sentences - a task that fell to classicist and cursive Latin expert, Dr Roger Tomlin. He was able to reveal the names, jobs and words of the people who lived in, traded from and administered Londinium almost 2000 years ago so that today we can hear across the centuries the voices of the very first Londoners,
The Story of the Bloomberg Writing Tablets The Story of the Bloomberg Writing Tablets
The Story of the Bloomberg Writing Tablets The Story of the Bloomberg Writing Tablets
With a narrative of this nature we knew that we had to provide the audience with a certain amount of historical context to help them better understand the framework of the story and the significance of the findings. In the pre-production stage we were careful therefore to write a script that gave enough historical information about the invasion of Britain by the Romans and their settlement in London.

As we progressed with the script development we looked to explain how the writing tablets were found, how they were constructed and used by the Romans, the way in which they were deciphered and finally what techniques were employed to preserve them for future generations of study.

Through historical documents, research phone calls and site recces we pulled together the information we needed for the script and identified the key protagonists involved in the story to provide the interview content. When ‘casting’ a film of this nature we were aware not only of the editorial aspect, but thinking also about the distinct broll sequences each contributor would offer up through their expertise and contribution to this project. In the end we planned a script with no voiceover and interviews with a historian of Roman London, an archaeologist involved in the dig, an expert on the construction of Roman writing tablets, the MOLA photographer whose pictures contributed to the deciphering process, our cursive Lation expert, and the conservator responsible for preserving the tablets for posterity.

With our shooting script and shot list prepared we were ready to film.
With all of the interviews we wanted to find a telling backdrop that spoke to the nature of each contributor’s profession and role on the project. As ever with corporate video production - where you rarely have total control over the filming environment - this can be a challenge, but getting this right always makes a massive difference to the final product’s look & feel.

The activities for the broll gave us plenty of opportunities to capture really visually engaging material. We filmed Damian Goodburn, an ancient woodwork specialist, as he constructed a replica tablet and poured in the molten, blackened beeswax. We captured the steps taken by MOLA’s Andy Chopping to photograph each tablet with decipherable text using a strong raking light, that threw shadow into the slightest indentations left by a stylus. We visited Latin expert Dr. Roger Tomlin in Oxford, where he showed us his remarkable process for deciphering these ancient historical artefacts using little more than Andy’s photographs, a microscope and his encyclopedic knowledge of Roman history. MOLA conservator Luisa Duarte guided us step-by-step through the cleaning and preservation process, demonstrating how a waxy substance called PEG replaced some of the wood’s water content, before the tablets were treated and freeze-dried.

With the photography and conservation sequences we rigged a jib to look down on the table-top activities, while a gimbal was used to capture some movement with the contributors, and we experimented with interesting ways to present a group shot of some of the actual writing tablets. This was filmed in MOLA’s photography studio and in the end a low-tech approach - hard lights with moving ‘flags’ to reveal them from the darkness against a white backdrop - proved very effective.
The Story of the Bloomberg Writing Tablets The Story of the Bloomberg Writing Tablets
The Story of the Bloomberg Writing Tablets The Story of the Bloomberg Writing Tablets
Besides the interview and broll content, in the final edit we included archive material related to Roman London and a series of graphics that illustrated the process of deciphering the writing on the tablets. These graphics required a few steps to bring clarity. First we overlaid the tablet with a layer that highlighted the shapes of the existing text in black . We then used a morphing technique to transform this handwritten cursive text into a recognisable Latin alphabet. From here we could translate the text, or explain what the abbreviations mean.

The finished documentary-style film is one we are very proud to have worked on. In addition to this piece, we were commissioned to create a multi-screen display that was set up in Bloomberg's offices in London during and after the press launch related to the project. A choice selection of our footage was packaged up and distributed to media organisations as part of an EPK for a story that had global implications. After all, one tablet features the earliest ever reference to London, preceding Tacitus’ citing of the city by 50 years.

We feel this project demonstrates why NextShoot is considered one of the best video agencies in London for corporate comms. Told with editorial rigour and visual flare it bares the hallmark not only of our collective experience in producing marketing video content, but in creating broadcast-quality documentary films.

You can see our 5-screen display video here.

For further information on the Bloomberg Writing Tablets, including details of the deciphered text, visit the London Mithraeum Bloomberg SPACE website.


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