The main thing I’m hoping to achieve through my PhD research is to put curse tablets into their social and religious contexts. That’s a fairly big simplification, but gets across the basic jist, which is that I want to get a better understanding of how curses fit into the lives of the people who used them. Of course, if you want to know where curses figure in the society of Roman Britain, Gaul and Germany, you first have to understand that society. Unfortunately this has brought me up against a debate that sends Ancient History, Classics and Archaeology students running for the hills: Romanisation.
Some more experienced readers will have got the same shiver I get when I see that word, knowing full well the depths of insanity it can lead to, but for the uninitiated, I will explain. Romanisation is a theory, developed in British scholarship in the early 20th century, which sought to explain how Roman culture penetrated the provinces. It assumed that Roman culture, with its monumental architecture, written language, sophisticated economy and flourishing arts, was vastly superior to that of the primitive natives, and so was readily adopted. Historians and archaeologists have argued over this theory for decades, especially over the last thirty years or so, as it became more obvious how much the earlier ideas had been influenced by the experiences of the British Empire, and its contacts with the peoples it colonised. Attempts to rid ourselves of these imperialist viewpoints have made the debate increasingly complicated to follow, as new theories are applied to try to make sense of the evidence, and get a better understanding of the processes involved. Historians have begun to look more and the involvement of native people in their own culture, and the distinction between ‘Roman’ and ‘native’ has become more blurred.
What this all means for me, is that trying to get an idea of the social context for my curse tablets is very difficult. As curse tablets don’t appear before the Roman period, we would assume that the knowledge of them came with the Romans, but we can also see them as a continuation of an ancient British practice of deposition at watery sites. There’s also the matter of the gods – at Bath the dedications were made to Sulis Minerva, a combination of a Roman and a native deity. The curses were also written in Latin – obviously not the native language of Britain.
So there is clearly some combination of cultures here, but working out the full picture is complicated. It’s still early days for my research, but the more I read about the Romanisation debate, the more I think that the evidence from curses can help advance it. They can give us more direct access to the thoughts and beliefs of ordinary people than temples or inscriptions.