Roman Lead Curse Tablet, Lidgate

roman curse tablet

A Roman lead alloy inscribed curse tablet from the Lidgate area, probably of second to third century date.

In the Roman world, the nature of religious belief in a living pantheon of gods and goddesses with decidedly human vices laid the path for concurrent beliefs in magic, witchcraft, spells, interference of deities in the human world and curses. Curse tablets (infrequently referred to in documentary evidence as defixio, trans. ‘a binder/fixer’) were intended by the writer to impair or prevent totally the accursed subject from carrying out aspects of their life normally. Usually the curse would be levelled against people or a specific person who had done harm to or maliciously affected someone else. Some curse tablets name individuals, others use set textual formulae, so as to be as wide reaching as possible and ensure that the relevant person would fall under the ‘binding’ nature of the curse.

The means of manufacturing a curse tablet are simple. A sheet of lead would be taken and inscribed upon with an appropriate writing implement. In the curse, the writer would likely begin by outlining the reason for the curse (perhaps by outlining items stolen in a theft), the names of those involved and perhaps his own name as well as invoking the relevant deity, usually the patron deity of the shrine or temple at which a curse tablet might be left. An example from the temple at Uley begins thus;

‘Cenacus complains to the god Mercury about Vitalinus and Natalinus his son concerning the draught animal which has been stolen from him.’

Other curse tablets are more vague in who they attack. On another tablet from Uley, Honoratus asks Mercury to curse the person who took draught animals, wheels and general small belongings from his house, but casts his net wide in the curse to ensure that the culprit is affected by it;

‘I would ask the genius of your divinity that you do not allow health to the person who has done me wrong, nor allow him to lie or sit or drink or eat, whether he is man or woman, whether boy or girl, whether slave or free….’

After inscribing the curse tablet as the writer saw fit, they were usually folded up and deposited with no intent to recover them. Curse tablets are usually found near religious sites, such as the sacred spring at Bath (Aquae Sulis) and the shrines of Uley/Lydney in Gloucestershire, the latter three alone producing over half the known examples from Britain. However, curse tablets are also known from riverine locales (such as the example from the river Hamble in Hampshire which invokes Neptune) and rarely from military sites such as the tablets from the amphitheatre in the legionary fortress of Caerleon.

It is likely that people buried or hid these curse tablets as they were only intended for their gods to see, although examples do exist which appear to have been nailed up in prominent places too. Elsewhere within the Roman Empire, curse tablets are more commonly found in amphitheatres and also within graves of the prematurely and violently deceased; in the case of graves, perhaps it was thought that these individuals could act as ‘messengers’ and deliver the curse to the relevant deity.

The main concentration of curse tablets is within the catchment of the Severn estuary, though the exact reasons for this are unclear. Most of these refer to cursing the thieves of items which have been stolen, suggesting that the main impetus of authoring defixio may have been a way of attaining the release of pent up frustration in a somewhat under-policed society. Alternatively, the act of inscribing the tablet and depositing it may have filled a social function in publicly announcing invocation and ‘activation’ of the curse, potentially creating a stimulus for the guilty party to redress their actions before receiving any ill-effects.

The Lidgate tablet, though a significant and rare find, is comparatively normal within the corpus of curse tablets. Though damaged, its inscription can be deciphered as follows;

‘Anvli qui perierunt si mulier si baro si ingenuus si servus….’

This broadly translates to:

‘to the rings which have been lost, whether man or woman, whether free or slave….’

Presumably this was written by an individual who had suffered a theft of personal jewellery. Though the content and written formula is comparable with several other curse tablets in Britain, there are unusual aspects – part of the inscription has been written backwards and upside down and there is no reference to a deity or the petitioner. We can also consider the location of its discovery. Most curse tablets as we have said come from religious sites, but this example was found in the outer environs of a rural Roman villa, an unusual location for this type of object indeed.

The full analysis and report on this find was undertaken by Dr Roger Tomlin of Wolfson College, Oxford. The finder has generously and responsibly donated it to Suffolk County Council Archaeological Service, with a strong likelihood of public display in the future.

View the full record on the Portable Antiquities Scheme database

Thank you to the finder for allowing this object to be featured.

This find was recorded by the Suffolk Finds Recording Team, supported by the Portable Antiquities Scheme.

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