Funder: Andrew W. Mellon Foundation project 'Script, Image and the Culture of Writing in the Ancient World'
Partner organizations (inside or outside Oxford):
Society for the Promotion of Roman Studies, Administrators of the Haverfield Bequest, British Museum
‘Curse tablets’ are small sheets of lead, inscribed with messages from individuals seeking to make gods and spirits act on their behalf and influence the behaviour of others against their will. The motives are usually malign and their expression violent, for example to wreck an opponent’s chariot in the circus, to compel a person to submit to sex or to take revenge on a theif. Letters and lines written back to front, magical ‘gibberish’ and arcane words and symbols often lend the texts additional power to persuade. In places where supernatural agents could be contacted, thrown into sacred pools at temples, interred with the dead or hidden by the turning post at the circus, these tablets have survived to be found by archaeologists. The webpages introduce curse tablets in the ancient world at large and in Britain in particular. They outline the preparation of curses, from making the tablet through writing the text to dispatching the curse to the gods. They examine the languages and scripts in which they were written, the cursers, the scribes and those who were cursed. Motives for cursing and the supernatural powers engaged to put curses into effect are investigated. We explore too where tablets are found and how they are preserved and interpreted by archaeologists and historians. The 'archaeological sites' section of the website introduces the contexts in which curse tablets have been found. As well as Uley, the archaeological sites presented here include the temples at Lydney (Gloucestershire), Brean Down (Somerset), Pagans Hill (Somerset), the amphitheatre of the legionary fortress at Caerleon (Gwent), and the small towns at Chesterton-on-Fosse (Warwickshire) and Leintwardine (Herefordshire). The context of the other tablets found by metal detectorists is also briefly described (Hamble (Hampshire), Marlborough and Wanborough (Wiltshire)).
The site's location, the date and circumstances of excavation, and an indication of the information recovered by archaeologists at each findspot are reported in each section. Where known the context of the curse tablets is presented. The evidence at temple sites for the deities addressed by curses and the rituals that were conducted is also outlined. Given the larger number of curse tablets and the large scale of archaeological excavation, Uley is presented in greater detail than other sites. Further information is provided on the contexts at Uley in which tablets were found and the processes that led to their deposition in those contexts.
Other projects the participants have been involved in: