Amazing Artefacts: Cruel Curses

Andrew Lane

Occasionally, archaeologists find an artefact that seems to provide a direct link to the past. One such example is a lead curse tablet found during the excavation of London’s Roman Amphitheatre. Neither beautiful or carefully fashioned – it nevertheless gives an insight into the personal thoughts and preoccupations of Londoners almost two thousand years ago – in a way that is rarely encountered from the ancient world.

Measuring approximately 10 cm square, the curse tablet is made from a thin sheet of lead that is inscribed on one side with a Latin script that reads:

I give to the goddess Deana (my) headgear and band less one third. If anyone has done this, whether boy or girl, whether slave or free, I give him, and through me let him be unable to live.

The implication is that a hat or hood, together with a neck-band or a scarf have been stolen and the victim is seeking redress from the goddess Deana. By offering a donation, in this case an unusually generous one, the value of the - headgear and band less one third – was believed to be a means of attracting the interest of the goddess to the task in question.

Lead curse tablets such as this are found across much of the Roman world and reflect a society where superstition and magic were part of everyday life. Probably commissioned from a magician or soothsayer, much of the language is formulaic. The term whether boy or girl, free or slave, is frequently encountered and was a grammatical means of ruling no one out from the list of suspects. Theft was a common grievance on lead curses, but they are concerned with a wide range of issues from unrequited love to support for different racing factions in the circus.  

The discovery of this curse in one of the drains in the amphitheatre suggests that the victim may have been part of the audience. The choice of goddess is also interesting. Deana, more commonly spelt Diana, was the goddess of the moon and sudden death, but also the divine huntress. In avenue where wild animal hunts formed an important component of the games, she was particularly venerated. Diana was often worshipped in conjunction with the goddess Nemesis, the goddess of fate or retributive justice and chambers dedicated to Diana/ Nemesis have been found in many amphitheatres.

So, this amazing artefact tells a story that still resonates today. Who has not felt anxious about leaving something, or worse had something stolen? These concerns were also shared by the earliest Londoners. What may differ is our attitude to the perpetrators. A few years ago when my bike was stolen I was happy to curse those involved - but capital punishment was never on the menu!   

A piece of led in poor condition, with rips and holes. Inscribed in faint markings which transcribe a curse.
Lead curse from the arena drain ©MOLA (Museum of London Archaeology)
Watercolour painting of a circular amphitheatre from birds eye view, with people and animals visible inside.
Reconstruction of the amphitheatre as it may have looked in about AD 130; view looking north(Judith Dobie) ©MOLA (Museum of London Archaeology)
London's Roman Ampitheatre attraction.
View of London’s Roman Amphitheatre © Andrew Lane

If you would like to find out more about Roman lead curses enjoy this 5-minute talk.