They came, they saw... and they asked for new underpantsLast updated at 22:36pm on 13th January 2008
Sifting through the mixture of ancient sewage, rotten bracken and the contents of several decades' worth of Roman rubbish bins, Dr Birley didn't think much at first when he came across a handful of half-burnt, sodden slices of oak, each about the size of a postcard.
Then, suddenly, he spotted a few faded vertical and horizontal marks in ink - Roman ink, made out of gum arabic - and water.
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Are you sitting comfortably? Ciaran Hinds, above, as Julius Caesar in the TV series Rome. The exhibition shows that soldiers in remote outposts yearned for nothing so much as the luxury of clean underwear
He had found it! The Holy Grail - the elusive detail experts on Roman Britain had been in search of for centuries: letters to and from the Roman soldiers who had garrisoned Britain from AD43 to 410.
Now known as the Vindolanda Tablets - after the fort where they were found - the more than 1,000 pieces of birch, alder and oak give an unparalleled, moving and often very funny insight into the life of the Roman soldier stuck miles from home at the end of the first century AD.
The letters, found 35 years ago, tend to be from officers and were found in the ruins of the praetorium, the residence of the officers commanding the Vindolanda units from AD90 to 120, just before Hadrian's Wall was built between AD122 and 130. The wall eventually stretched 74 miles from Solway Firth in the west to Wallsend on the River Tyne in the east.
The letters reveal how the soldiers miss their family and friends back in Gaul - that's where most of them came from.
How they long for fine Italian wine. How they dread the attacks of the vicious Picts - the woad-encrusted savages from the north whose raids were to be held off by the new wall of turf and stone stretching across the neck of England.
But most of all, how cold they are in the frozen north, a few miles from modern Hexham.
The funniest letter is a simple list of the clothes sent from the warm south to a poor frozen Roman: "Paria udonum ab Sattua solearum duo et subligariorum duo." Or - socks, two pairs of sandals and two pairs of underpants.
Two pairs of underpants! We tend to forget that the Roman Empire, the greatest the world has ever seen, stretching from Wales to Spain, from Tunisia to Turkey, had to be patrolled by thousands of soldiers, and soldiers, like all of us, are humans. And humans need underpants.
These glimpses into the life of a Roman soldier in Britain will form the central exhibit in a new British Museum show devoted to the Emperor Hadrian, who ruled from AD117 to 138 and visited Britain in 122.
But if Hadrian is the main feature of the new exhibition, then his lowly soldiers are the stars of the show - with their all-too-familiar gripes about life.
These little wooden postcards tell in the cramped hands of more than 280 correspondents what life was really like in the Roman Empire.
"My brother Veldeius," complains one. "I'm pretty shocked that you haven't written to me for ages. Have you heard anything from the folks?
"Do say hello to Virilis the vet and ask him if you can get one of our pals to bring me the pair of shears that he promised me after I paid him. Hope everything is going well. Goodbye."
Another reflects upon the strange native race they encounter: "The British are unprotected by armour. There are lots of cavalry. They don't use swords nor do these dreadful British people mount their horses to throw javelins at us."
But there are, apparently, some pleasures to be had in such an inhospitable posting: "To Lucius. The real reason for my letter is to hope that you're in good health.
"By the way, a friend has sent me 50 oysters from the Thames estuary on the north coast of Kent," writes a soldier.
Most Roman letters were written on papyrus - paper made from the papyrus plant grown in the Nile. Another technique was to inscribe a stilus tablet - a wooden frame with a wax panel set into it.
There's not much call for papyrus plants in Northumberland and the wax has perished from the stilus tablets, leaving barely decipherable scratch marks on the wooden frame beneath the wax.
How lucky, then, that the Vindolanda officers tended to write on longer-lasting simple leaves of wood, one to three millimetres thick, scratched with a reed pen dipped into an inkwell.
The wood was all local. Once written on, the letters were often folded, leaving an imprint of wet ink on the opposite page.
Just as on postcards today, Romans then wrote the addressee on the right side of the card, with the name of the sender below preceded by "a" or "ab" - meaning "from". Much of the letter was written by a professional scribe, with the sender closing the letter in his own hand, writing "vale frater" - "goodbye, brother".
Among the things we learn from these delicate little documents are military reports of the strength and activities of the Vindolanda garrison. Also revealed are details of the domestic administration of this remote little outpost.
Sifting through them, we learn of the diet of the Roman expat, so reminiscent of home: Massic wine (a fine Italian vintage), garlic, fish, semolina, lentils, olives and olive oil.
They also ate a lot of the local Pictish fare: pork fat, cereal, spices, roe-deer and venison.
There are many mentions, too, of "cervesa" and "callum" - that is, lager and pork scratchings, and all 1,000 years before the great British pub had been invented.
The demand for fine food hits a peak at the festival of the Roman goddess of chance, Fors Fortuna, when they have a hog roast, washed down with great quantities of wine, which they claim is "ad sacrum divae" - "for religious use" - an early version of the old "I only drink for medicinal purposes" ploy.
As well as pants, the Romans are desperate for "subuclae" - or vests - for the "abolla", the thick heavy cloak, and for "cubitoria", a full dinner service.
But what really gets the heart racing are the real day-to-day lives of the soldiers, their family and friends.
A man writing to his brother - "Vittius Adiutor eagle-bearer of the Second Augustan Legion to Cassius Saecularis, his little brother, very many greetings."
Solemnis, in another letter, wrote to his brother Paris: "Hello there. Hope all's well. I'm in top form - and I hope you are, even though you've been so bloody lazy and haven't sent me a single letter.
"I'm so much more considerate than you are, my brother, my messmate. Say hello to Diligens and Cogitatus and Corinthus. Goodbye, my dear brother."
Most moving of all is a letter from Claudia Severa to her sister, Sulpicia Lepidina, the wife of a big cheese at Vindolanda - Flavius Cerialis, prefect of the Ninth Cohort of Batavians.
"Oh how I want you to come to my birthday party - you'll make the day so much more enjoyable. I so hope you can make it. Goodbye, sister, my dearest soul."
"Anima mea desideratissima" - "My most longed-for soul" - Claudia calls Sulpicia in another letter. You can almost hear the wrenching apart of the hearts, divided by the greatest imperial project in history.
What a wrench it is for us, too, almost 2,000 years on, to read how those hearts were brought together by these rotten, scorched little slips of oak, inscribed with words that sound as fresh as if they were written this morning.
• Hadrian's Britain, British Museum, July 24 to October 26. • Amo, Amas, Amat... And All That: How To Become A Latin Lover by Harry Mount (Short Books, £12.99).