Animal Sacrifice in the Classroom

At the Classical Association conference this weekend I gave a paper on a lesson I’ve taught a few times with the Brilliant Club, in which I guide the students through a reconstruction of a Roman animal sacrifice. As I explained in my presentation, I do this to get the students thinking about the lived experience of Roman religion, and to overcome the sometimes sterile textual or artistic ancient sources.

The paper went really well, and a few people said they might try it out with their own students, both in secondary schools and universities.

For those who were not at the paper, or were there but did not get a handout, I thought it would be a good idea to upload it here. If anyone has any questions or wants clarification on how things work then do please get in touch. Also, if you do take these resources and run an animal sacrifice in your own classroom please let me know! It would be great to see how it works in other contexts!

Click the link below to download the handout:

Animal sacrifice HO

Alongside the texts and image on the handout you will need:

  • A toy sheep (a pig or a cow would work too!)
  • A toy knife and a hammer
  • An altar – I use a metal bowl supported by a tripod of bamboo canes.
  • Barley
  • Incense – I use dried lavender, but anything fragrant could work.

Good luck!


Are curse tablets votives?

I have realised how totally deserted this blog has been over the last year. I’ve been super busy (as usual), so forgive the long absence – I’m hoping to get back to blogging soon!

In the meantime, have a look at this post, written by myself and E-J Graham – one of my excellent PhD supervisors – about whether curse tablets can be considered votives. Let us know what you think in the comments section!

The Votives Project

Stuart McKie is Lecturer in Classics and Ancient History at The University of Manchester. He recently completed his PhD at The Open University, with a thesis entitled ‘The Social Significance of Curse Tablets in the North-Western Roman Provinces’.

At last year’s combined Roman and Theoretical Roman Archaeology Conference (RAC/TRAC) held at the Sapienza University in Rome (March 2016), papers in one session sought to tackle issues of categorisation in relation to Roman religion. Amongst the speakers was fellow Votives Project (TVP) founder Jessica Hughes, whose paper explored the complexities of the simultaneously all-encompassing and yet highly specific terminology used to refer to ‘votive offerings’ in both ancient and modern contexts. Another speaker was (now recently completed) Open University PhD student Stuart McKie, who drew upon his work with curse tablets from the north western Roman provinces to emphasise the ways in which ancient people might use cursing rituals more…

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Ancient and Modern Cursing

It’s been a dramatic week in British politics, with the continued fallout from the so-called Panama Papers causing all sorts of problems for many high-profile people. The Prime Minister, David Cameron, has been at the centre of it all, finally admitting on Thursday that he profited from his father’s off-shore holdings. This revelation triggered wall-to-wall news coverage on TV and in print, protests outside Downing Street, and a particularly inventive Twitter hashtag that was trending for a fair few days: #cursedavidcameron (NB: if you go looking through the tweets be warned, the language is… colourful… and could easily offend. I accept no responsibility for the invective of others, so you click the link at your own risk!).

Now, as you can imagine, the nature of this social media trend was particularly interesting for me, considering my current research interests. I was busy at a conference while the hashtag was active, so didn’t get to contribute my own choice words on the subject, but nevertheless I was struck by the similarities between some of the tweets and the ancient curses that I am studying for my PhD. People cursed Cameron with a host of ailments, including sleeplessness, problems with eating, drinking defecation and urination, infestations of vermin and public humiliation. All of these can be found on the curse tablets from the Roman north-west, as in these examples:

Uley tablet no. 4. Translated by R. Tomlin (1993)

Biccus dat M/ercurio quidquid / pe(r)d(id)it si vir si m/ascel ne meiat / ne cacet ne loqua/tur ne dormiat/ n[e] vigilet nec sa/[l]utem nec sa/nitatem ne/ss[i] in templo / Mercurii per/tulerit ne co(n)/scientiam de / perferat ness[i] / me interceden/te

Biccus gives Mercury whatever has lost (that the thief), whether man or male (sic), may not urinate or defecate nor speak nor sleep nor stay awake nor [have] well-being or health, unless he bring (it) in the temple of Mercury; not gain conciousness (sic) of (it) unless with my intervention.

Groß-Gerau curse (AE 2007.1049)

ut illius manus caput pedes uermes cancer uermitudo interet membra medullas illius interet

worms, tumours and vermin shall invade his hands, head and feet, they shall invade his limbs and marrow.

Mainz curse no. 1 (DTM 1)

nec plum(i)bis nec auro nec argento redimere a numine tuo nisi ut illas uorent canes uermes adque alia portenta exitum quarum populus spectet

Neither through lead nor through gold nor through silver can they redeem themselves from your divine power, unless dogs, worms and other monsters devour them. May the people watch their death

Aside from the similar fates wished onto the victim, I would argue that the form and function of the curses and the tweets come from the same human desire. Aggressive magical rituals, as well as aggressive posts on social media, are methods by which people can attack  rivals, enemies or just people they don’t like, from a position of relative safety. Most ancient curses were anonymous, and lots of the people who tweeted #cursedavidcameron did so from twitter accounts that don’t use their real names and don’t have their real face as an avatar. This anonymity makes people more confident, and allows them to say things they would probably never say to the victim’s face – how many of the tweeters would actually curse the British Prime Minister in person, surrounded by his bodyguards, press corps and the rest of his entourage?

Cursing on Twitter (or on a lead tablet if you were an ancient Roman) is also cathartic. There is a sense of release, of physically acting to relieve the stress of a tense situation and to gain power in a situation of powerlessness. In the Roman context, the act of physically inscribing words into a sheet of lead would have given the same satisfying sensation as the hammering out of a vitriolic tweet on a computer keyboard gives a modern Twitter curser.

Of course, there are plenty of differences between ancient curses and modern Twitter. The mob mentality of Twitter hashtags like #cursedavidcameron is a serious worry, and there have been many cases of victims becoming seriously effected by similar trends in the past, to the point at which law enforcement has become involved.

Nevertheless, I think it’s really interesting that, despite being seperated by 2000 years, ancient and modern cursing still speaks to the same human desires. Twitter might be at the cutting edge of 21st century social media, but at its dark heart lies impulses that are much, much older.

Curse Tablet of the Month #12 – November 2015

Wow, it’s been a long time since I posted on this blog – apologies! I cite the usual mad busy-ness of a PhD student as my excuse. With all the research, thesis writing, conference papers and job applications I’ve been doing, posting here has sort of fallen by the wayside. I’ll try to keep posting now and then though, so keep an eye on it!

Anyway, I have been spurred into posting today because of an event that happened yesterday. As some may know, the fabulous Almeida Theatre in London has been doing a season of Greek plays, including some excellent performances that have brought fresh life and new audiences to the ancient texts. Yesterday, the theatre set out to read the entirety of Homer’s Odyssey in a single day, travelling throughout London while doing so. Famous faces from stage and screen, including the magnificent Sir Ian McKellen and Stanley Tucci, read sections of the poem on foot, on buses, taxis, boats and even the London Eye.

It was the section on the Thames that particularly struck me, and which was the impetus for this post. As the performance neared the river at Tower Bridge, Odysseus was leaving the island of Calypso on his newly-built ship. He was spotted by Poseidon, god of the sea, who sent a huge storm to wreck him on the rocks. Odysseus would have drowned there and then, if not for the intervention of two goddesses, Ino and Athena.

The matching of the text with the setting was excellent, and as I watched the live stream online I realised that this was not the first time that the ancient god of the sea had been invoked here on the banks of the Thames. Almost 2000 years earlier someone deposited this curse tablet in the river near London Bridge:

Front side of the tablet. Picture from Tomlin, R. (1987) Inscriptions. Britannia. 18: 361.

Front side of the tablet. Picture from Tomlin, R. (1987) Inscriptions. Britannia. 18: 361.

Back of the tablet. Picture from Tomlin, R. (1987) Inscriptions. Britannia. 18: 362.

Back of the tablet. Picture from Tomlin, R. (1987) Inscriptions. Britannia. 18: 362.

te rogo Metunus ut me vendicas de iste numene me vendicas ante quod veniant dies novem rogo te Metunus ut tu mi vendicas ante quod veniat dies novem // Exsuparantius Silviola Sattavilla Exsuparatus Silvicolae Avitus Melusso datus est pervici tibi Santinus Mag[. . .]etus apidimis Antonius Sanctus Vassianus Varasius datus est

I ask you Neptune, that you avenge me on this name, that you avenge me before nine days come. I ask you, Neptune, that you avenge me before nine days come. Exsuperantius, Silviola, Sattavilla, Exsuperatus (son of) Silvicola, Avitus, Melussus is given… I have prevailed upon you (?)… San(c)tinus, Mag…etus… Antonius, Sanctus, Vassianus, Varasius is given.

It’s not a particularly descriptive text, but there are some interesting details. For one, the petitioner uses Matunus, a Vulgar Latin spelling of Neptune influenced by spoken Celtic pronunciation. Neptune, in turn, is the Latin version of the Greek Poseidon who was wrecking Odysseus in Homer’s poem. The levels of cultural transmission at work here are staggering if you stop to think about them – from 8th century Greece (if not earlier) to Rome, and then on to London through hundreds, if not thousands of years. Through out all of that time and space, people adopted the worship of this god to their own cultural contexts, changing his name along with worship practices to keep them relevant to whatever new situation arose.

If Neptune’s vengeful punishments of Odysseus for the murder of the god’s son are anything to go by, the petitioner picked a very appropriate deity to address as the spirit of vengeance for this curse. The intentional twisting and bending of the curse text, visible in the images above, would have added further power to the appeal, making it more likely to succeed.

We don’t often think, up here on the northern fringes of the old Graeco-Roman world, of the classical gods ever being active in our earth, sea and sky. This curse tablet shows that the people alive at the time disagreed, and that they believed that Neptune had just as much power in the Thames as he did in the wine dark Aegean. Perhaps unknowingly, yesterday’s performance of the Odyssey on the Thames tapped into this long dormant belief, and brought Neptune back to London.

Curse tablet of the month #11 – July 2015

It’s been far too long since I posted one of these, but I’ve been spurred into action by yesterday’s exciting images beamed back to earth from Pluto. If you haven’t seen them already, they are totally worth a look and can be found here.

The success of the New Horizons space probe might be the first time mankind has visited the dwarf planet Pluto, but the Graeco-Roman god after which is was named had regular visitors to his underworld kingdom – Odesseus, Aeneus, Orpheus and plenty of other heroes travelled to the underworld and occassionally dealt with its shadowy ruler. He was also regularly invoked in ancient magical rituals as the power behind the restless dead and other chthonic spirits. In two connected curse tablets from Chagnon, near Saint-Etienne in modern France, he is called upon with Persephone, the goddess whom Pluto abducted and made his queen.

denuntio personis infra/scriptis, Lentino et Tasgillo / uti adsint ad Plutonem / et ad Proserpinam hinc abeant / quomdo hic catellus nemini / nocuit sic [. . .] nec / illi hanc litem vincere possint / quomodi nec mater huius catelli / defendere putuit sic nec advo/cati eorum e[os d]efendere non / possint sic illos [in]imicos / Atracatetracati gal/lara precata egdarata / hehes celata mentis ablata / {et ad Prosepinam hinc abeant} //
aversos ab hac l[i]te esse debent quomodo hic catellus aversus / est nec surgere potesti / sic nec illi sic transpicti sint / quomodo ille / quomodi in hoc monumento ani/malia obmutuerunt nec surge/re possunt nec illi muti / Atracatertracati gallara / precata egdarata he/hes celata mentis abla/ta

I denounce the persons written below, Lentinus and Tasgillus, in order that they may depart from here for Pluto and Persephone. Just as this puppy harmed no one, so (may they harm no one) and may they not be able to win this suit; just as the mother of this puppy cannot defend it, so may their lawyers be unable to defend them, (and) so (may) those (legal) opponents magical words //

be turned back from this suit; just as this puppy is (turned) on its back and is unable to rise, so neither (may) they; they are pierced through, just as this is; just as in this tomb animals (or souls) have been transformed/silenced and cannot rise up, and they (can)not… Magical words.

This is one of the longest and most elaborate curses from my study area, and gives plenty of information about why it was made and how it was expected to work. The Latin is vulgar and full of errors, but it is clearly a legal curse, made to control opponents at a trial. The victims are symbolically sent to Pluto and Persephone through the power granted by sacrificing a puppy. Animal sacrifice as part of a cursing ritual is rare – the only other example from the north-western provinces is from another legal curse found in Frankfurt, in which there is a reference to killing a songbird to silence the opposing lawyers. Here on the Chagnon curse, the power of the dead, and those who rule over them, is plain to see, and the petitioner is attempting to harness that power to attack both Lentinus, Tasgillus and their lawyers.

On both tablets, the same sequence of magical words are repeated: Atracatetracati gallara precata egdarata hehes celata mentis ablata. It’s true that some of these are good Latin words, but they are mixed up with nonsense words to create a sequence that is not supposed to make sense to mortals. Formulas like this added to the mystery of the ritual, and the petitioners would have believed that the spirits who read the curse would understand them perfectly well. These words, along with the sacrificed puppy and the nail that was driven through both tablets, made the curse more likely to reach the intended audience of underworld powers and therefore more likely to succeed in helping the petitioners to win their trial.

Conference season

Since late-March I have barely spent a weekend at home, as I have been travelling all over the country for various conferences, seminars and workshops. It’s been incredibly busy, leaving little time for posting on my blog for which I apologise. Normal service should hopefully resume this month, so watch this space!

I haven’t been completely silent online over the past few months – Twitter is the obvious place where I’ve been posting about what I’m up to (follow me at @bigfridge224). I’ve also written a guest blog for the Theoretical Roman Archaeology Conference (TRAC), which I have reproduced below. You can find the original here, on the TRAC website.

TRAC sessions attended:

  • Charmed, I’m sure: Roman magic – old theory, new approaches
  • Theorizing space and material culture in Late Antiquity (first half)
  • Interdisciplinary approaches to Roman artefacts (second half)
  • Contextualising coins, assembling contexts and interrogating agency
  • Integrating Environmental and Theoretical Roman Archaeology

CA sessions attended:

  • Smelling Rome
  • The Senses in Roman Life
  • Low genre and ideology (first half)
  • Sacred space and the senses (second half)
  • The experience of ancient polytheism
  • The role of perception in making sense of space
  • The Roman Empire

I attended both TRAC and the Classical Association Conference (CA) this year, and as they were so close together I thought that a comparison of the two might be interesting. Obviously this comes with plenty of caveats: TRAC and the CA differ in size, purpose and remit, and both are world-leaders in their respective corners of our field. I don’t intend to proclaim which conference was ‘best’ – how would I even decide, and what would be the point? Instead I thought I would focus on my experiences of attending the conferences, how I found the themes, formats and content of this year’s TRAC and CA.

Both adhered to the standard format of academic conferences. Panels consisted of a number of 20-minute papers centred on a specific theme. Although a few of the panel chairs reserved discussion and question time until the end of the panel, the majority gave the audience 10 minutes after each presentation to ask the speaker questions. At the CA there were also a couple of round-table discussions, which were a nice change from the standard format. It would be nice to see some more variety from the norm at conferences – modern technology might hold new opportunities, and actually both the CA and TRAC were great at encouraging engagement through social media, especially Twitter.

The most noticeable difference between the two, and something that is immediately obvious from looking at the brochures, is the sheer size of the CA compared to TRAC. This year the CA ran nine panels consecutively over almost three days, meaning that there were almost 200 papers given in total, not counting the roundtables, plenaries and film screenings. The whole thing felt like an academic version of Reading Festival, with so much going on that you could never hope to catch it all. Thankfully most of the rooms were close together, so switching panels was possible if needed. The benefit of the gargantuan size of the conference was that there was always something on that I was interested in. For me, the panels themed around the senses had the biggest draw, and there were some outstanding speakers across the three days. I enjoyed in particular the “Smelling Rome” panel, with Dr Eleanor Betts’ work using the theory of ‘pungent loci’ to navigate Rome by smell especially interesting. I also thought the way Jeffrey Veitch applied modern knowledge of sound engineering to Ostian bath houses was a great way to get closer to ancient experiences. Overall, the theoretical content of these sensory panels was good, and the speakers applied theories from a wide range of other disciplines to provide excellent insights into the ancient world. Alongside the academic talks, the CA excels at bringing in professionals from associated areas, especially in education. It is always great to hear about how Classics is being taken out into communities and schools – ultimately it is the only way our discipline will survive!

TRAC was somewhat cosier, but still offered more than 80 papers over the two days (had this been a RAC/TRAC year the size difference would have been smaller). My experience of TRAC was altered by the fact that I participated in a panel, namely “Charmed, I’m sure: Roman magic – old theory, new approaches.” Naturally this was the stand-out panel for me at TRAC, with a series of excellent presentations which were very close to my own research interests. Ancient magic can often seem like the black sheep in our field – it was barely mentioned at the CA, despite the huge number of researchers present – so getting a whole dedicated panel at TRAC was very welcome! On the whole, TRAC was more focussed than the CA. Being an archaeology conference the emphasis on material culture was expected, but although the rest of the empire was occasionally mentioned, most papers concentrated exclusively on Roman Britain. Despite this, the variety of materials discussed kept up my interest, and I particularly enjoyed the environmental archaeology session – a topic I knew very little about previously. Like many others I was impressed with Lauren Bellis, who made her TRAC debut off the back of her MA dissertation on social relations with dogs in Roman Britain: one to watch! The most theory-heavy panel was “Interdisciplinary approaches to Roman artefacts”, in which most of the speakers wore their influences very much on their sleeves. Nicky Garland studied small finds from a range of scales, and brought in theories of agency, identity and landscape. Jason Lundock’s use of material complex theory was also very enlightening, giving fresh perspectives on how objects were perceived and experienced in the Roman world.

I had a great time at both conferences. I met loads of great new people and heard some exciting, ground-breaking research. Engagement on Twitter added an excellent dimension to the experiences; something I hope will be developed and improved at future events.

The wandering student

It’s been a little while since I wrote something on here – a combination of Christmas and a hectic work schedule are to blame! Today I thought I would give a little summary of what I’ve been up to over the last few months (skipping the boring bits, obviously!).

A lot of my time has been taken up with writing and editing various bits – I’ve finally started producing larger chunks of thesis, which is good progress. I’ve also been writing conference papers for TRAC (Theoretical Roman Archaeology Conference) and AMPAH (The Annual Meeting of Postgraduates in Ancient History) – both of which I plan to post, either on here or on, after the conferences.

The research I’ve done around all this writing has been mainly in the form of site visits. In the wise words of Indiana Jones:

If you want to be a good archaeologist, you’ve got to get out of the library!

Taking my cue not just from the great man himself, but also an expanding body of archaeological interpretation based on the philosophical theories of phenomenology, I have been trying to get a better idea of the experience of writing curses for people on the sites they were found, and this can only really be done by physically being there. Before Christmas I went back to Bath, and this month I spent a week in Germany looking at the Trier amphitheatre and the temple of Isis and Magna Mater in Mainz. Now, I wouldn’t claim that I got the exact same experience as a Roman would have on these sites almost 2000 years ago, as so much has changed at all of them in the intervening time. Human experience is also not universal – what I feel, hear and see as a (relatively) young, fit male could be drastically different to people of different ages, abilities or genders. Nevertheless, there were things I noticed that I would never have appreciated no matter how long I started at the site plans in books. The amphitheatre in Trier has fantastic acoustics, even in its ruined state. Every minute sound made on the arena floor echoes out in the seating areas, something that a person digging a hole for a curse tablet would have been aware of.

Trier amphitheatre as it stands today.

Trier amphitheatre as it stands today.

At Bath, standing at the windows over-looking the spring, you get a real sense of the mystical power of the water. It bubbles and steams: it’s opacity masking whatever lies beneath. For anyone who believed that a goddess lived there, these sensory experiences would have confirmed her divine power, making it a prime place to try to communicate with her.

I have also had the chance to handle some of the original curses from Bath and Trier, thanks to the generosity of the museum staff in both towns. Much like the exercise of making my own tablets, this brought new insights into the physical process of doing a curse. I got a feel for how the tablets were made, their weight in my hand, how hard the person pressed with the stylus, and how they folded or rolled the tablet after writing.

All of this is valuable information, and the challenge now is to work it into my argument. Back to writing I go!