Experimental cursing – putting theories into action!

What would making a curse tablet actually be like?

This is the question I’m thinking about at the moment, and as you can probably imagine, it’s not an easy one to answer. I’ve been spending the last few weeks researching the impact of sensory experience on the things people do, and why they do them in the specific ways that they do, and there are some excellent books and articles by archaeologists, anthropologists and sociologists who work on this area. However, reading about something is one thing, actually doing it is another entirely.

With that in mind, I bought myself a sheet of lead and set about making some copies of ancient curses.

scissors croppedLead is a soft metal, as I’m sure most of you knew already. I was easily able to cut my large sheet into smaller sections with kitchen scissors or a sturdy knife. Thankfully the sheet I purchased was around the same thickness as ancient sheet lead – around 1mm, so cutting, folding, rolling and piercing should be roughly equivalent to how it felt to the Romans. Its softness means that it never really feels like metal – it doesn’t clink when knocked against things and doesn’t have the same slick, frictionless feel that other metals do. It is shiny and cold however, and when cold it feels less flexible.

It soon warms up when you start handling it, and you get used to the malleability quite quickly too. I cut the sheet into smaller tablets roughly equivalent to the size of ancient curse tablets, and played around with different ways of writing on them. At first I was surprised by how small they were, considering how much text was crammed onto the tablets, but again I got used to it quickly.

The first text I copied was from one of the Uley tablets (no. 4). I wrote the tablets with either a steel nail or a brass screw – the closest things to ancient writing implements (iron or bronze styli) that are readily available in a modern hardware store. Writing on the lead was easy. You as much control over the nail as you would over a pen, and you don’t need to press too hard to make a shallow impression. However, the deeper you try to gouge into the metal the less refined your writing.

My version of Uley tablet no.4.

My version of Uley tablet no.4.

This is my name, written while pressing as hard as I could. You can see the letters are less neat then when pressing more softly.

This is my name, written while pressing as hard as I could. You can see the letters are less neat than on the others where I’m pressing more softly.

As you are writing you feel the contors of the metal, totally unlike a flat piece of paper. It’s hard to tell from the pictures but even before it is folded or rolled there are bumps and grooves that effect the shape of your letters and the direction of your lines. if this is true of the lead I used, which was produced using modern industrial methods, it must have been even more significant when dealing with the hand-made sheets produced by Roman smiths. Something I noticed right away is how the light catches the words you write. It was a sunny day today, and the light coming in through the window really made the letters stand out, even as I was writing them. You get a sense of that from the pictures – the angles of the letters catch the light in different ways.

I copied the Uley tablet directly from my database, meaning I had more of a guide than the original writer, Biccus, who might have composed it as he was going. To try to put myself more into the position of the ancient authors I did two further experiments. One of the Bath tablets (Tab. Sul. 62) was written backwards, but done from a straight text – a conclusion based on some of the mistakes the writer made. I made myself a straight version of the text on paper, then wrote it backwards onto a tablet.

Straight text and copy of Tab. Sul. 62

Straight text and copy of Tab. Sul. 62

Writing backwards was a challenge at first, but gets easier as you go. Letters with curves are the hardest, especially S, which I never properly mastered in capitals or cursive! I tried both handwriting styles (my attempt at capitals is pictured), and cursive is far harder because there are more curved letters, and also fewer symmetrical letters.

The other experiment I did to get closer to the ancient experience was to write a curse in English off the top of my head. Working in my mother tongue freed me from the restrictive feelings of writing in another language, and I think it flowed easier. I recorded myself – there’s a video here – and you can see how quick the writing is. You can also see where I pause as I’m thinking of the next thing to write. Essentially I tried to make my own Bath curse, and did quite well!

As you can see from the picture of the Biccus tablet, I also tried piercing the tablets with nails. This was relatively common in the ancient world, and I wanted to see how easy it was. Through one sheet of lead 1 mm thick it is possible by hand, although not without some strength and effort. Some of the tablets were pierced after folding, sometimes through four layers of lead. I tried this too, and found it impossible without a hammer.

I’ve learned a lot from making these tablets. It’s not the most scientific experiment – my materials aren’t exactly the same as those available in the ancient world, nor do I have the same experience of literacy as the people who wrote the curse tablets I am studying. Nevertheless, I think I have a better understanding of the feel of the materials and some of the actions that went into making these objects.

Curse Tablet of the Month #9: November 2014

I’ve only just missed the chance for a Halloween special on this blog, but I couldn’t pass up the opportunity to feature one of my favourite curses from Roman Britain. It’s from a cemetery in the parish of Clothall, Hertfordshire, and evokes fantastically gory images, the sort of thing sadly missing from many of the more legalistic curses from Bath and Uley.

uetus / quomodo sanies / signeficatur / Tacita deficta

Tacita, hereby accursed, is labelled old like putrid gore.

Short and (not so) sweet, the curse consists of a single sentence, split over four lines. It was written backwards, right to left rather than left to right, and some of the letters are also upside down or sideways.

As can be seen from the drawing, the tablet was also pierced by at least four, probably five nails, and there are several smaller holes which apparently originally held lead wire, some of which survived.

The curse from Clothall as drawn by R. Collingwood (1931).

The curse from Clothall as drawn by R. Collingwood (1931).

Like the curse against Trutmo Florus that I featured last month, we do not know the exact motive that inspired this particular curse, but again we can assume that there was some spoken element to the ritual that made it clear what Tacita had done to deserve such a fate. In another similarity with the magic doll from Mainz, the physical manipulation of the object was key to the ritual. In this case it was the repeated driving of nails and wire into the already-inscribed tablet, which mirrored the intention of the words. The word defixa, which the petitioner erroneously wrote as deficta and which is translated here as to be cursed, literally means to fix down or to attach firmly, and that’s doubtless the intent behind such violent mutilation of the tablet. Tacita is to be driven down to the world of the dead by the combined force of the written words and the ritual actions.

To facilitate this curse, the petitioner deposited it into a grave with the intent that the spirit of the dead person would deliver it to some infernal power, who would then set about punishing Tacita. R. Wright’s (1952) translation of old like putrid gore for uetus quomodo sanies is grimly evocative of rotting corpses or diseased wounds, and is perfectly suited for the location of its deposition. It also matches the revulsion the Romans felt towards people who tampered with the dead, a feeling no doubt pressing on the mind of whoever dug down into the grave before committing this curse to the earth. There’s a twisting of the natural order in this too – with the dead ripped from their peaceful repose to disturb the world of the living. I think that’s one reason why the words were written in such a strange way – backwards and twisted around. By doing so, the writer has infused the written words with strange power, and through that power attempted to make the curse inescapable.

References:

Collingwood, R. in Westall, P. (1931) A Romano-British Cemetery at Baldock, Herts.The Archaeological Journal 88: 247-301.

Wright, R. (1952) Roman Britain in 1951: Inscriptions. Journal of Roman Studies 42: 103