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!

A Year in Review

As of this month, both my PhD and this blog are a year old – hurrah!

This is a Roman statue of a child holding (strangling?) a duck. I'm sure there's a metaphor for a PhD in it somewhere...

This is a Roman statue of a child holding (strangling?) a duck. I’m sure there’s a metaphor for a PhD in it somewhere…

In celebration of my first anniversary as a PhD student and blogger I thought I would write a little retrospective of the last year: of the things that went well, the things I’ve learned and the things I need to improve as I look forward to second and third year.

This little nostalgia trip was partly inspired by my trip up to Milton Keynes last week. The Open University Arts Faculty invited me and two other second-years to talk to this year’s intake of new PhD students, and the questions they asked reminded me of the concerns I had at the same time 12 months earlier. What is probation like? How do you organise such a huge project? Where do I even start? Obviously, everyone’s PhD is completely different to everyone else’s, but there are some things that are common to us all, and we tried our best to put the new students at ease. The main thing I kept repeating was that they should be enjoying their research. There is no point in committing three years of your life to something that you hate, and thankfully I have a topic that I really, genuinely enjoy researching.

One of the new students asked us something perceptive, and on reflection I think my answer says a lot about me. He asked if we could go back and do our first year again, what is the one thing we would change. I initially joked that I might work faster, but in the end I said that I wouldn’t change anything, because the mistakes I made have helped me grow as a researcher, and I think I’m better for having made them. The example I gave to show this was the week I spent around November last year reading psychology literature, something that I thought would be useful but ended up being a bit of a dead-end. Although it was a week I could have better spent on more relevent literature, the experience has helped me to identify other areas that at first seem interesting but ultimately don’t contribute much to my project. My answer to his question is a symptom of the optimism that I try to make my default position on everything. Things go wrong, and we can’t help that – we’re only human after all – but what we can do is put our mistakes down to experience and try not to repeat them.

I have done plenty of good things though, which far outweigh the mistakes. My research has come on really well, with a finished database and a solid theoretical base. I have had some presentation experience, at the OU and at Cirencester Museum, which will stand me in great stead when I start speaking at academic conferences this year (hopefully more on that in a later blog). I have also been teaching with the Brilliant Club, which has given me a fantastic opportunity to introduce students at three secondary schools to the ancient world – something I didn’t get the chance to study at my own school. Teaching students aged between 11 and 18 has given me a new perspective on the material I study, and has forced me to think about Roman religion in new ways. It has also been great fun, and I’d recommend any PhD student get in contact with the Brilliant Club and give it a go!

Last, but not least, I count this blog as one of my successes. I hope you have enjoyed reading it, because writing it has certainly helped me clear up some of my ideas about ancient cursing. It will continue to post as reguarly as possible, and I’d love your feedback too! If you have any suggestions, comments or questions about what I post, about Brilliant Club teaching, about doing a PhD or anything else, feel free to drop me a message through the contact page or send me a tweet.

Here’s to the next two years!

I'll try!


I am quite a lucky person. That’s true of many facts of my life, but it’s one particular aspect that I’ve been immensely thankful for over the first year of my PhD research. I have techno-joy. The idea comes from Eddie Izzard, who splits people into two camps – techno-fear and techno-joy. Those of us with joy will gleefully sit in front of new tech and click away, experimenting with shiny new buttons until we get the right result or accidentally delete the internet – usually the former.

Techno-joy effects non-humans too.

My techno-joy has helped me learn a host of new things that have become vital to my research, from organising my bibliography with EndNote to making detailed distribution maps of curse tablet find sites on Adobe Illustrator. It’s also been instrumental in getting me used to writing blogs, and I’m now really happy getting these posts to look as good as possible whilst still communicating information I hope people will want to read!

This is all great, but the most important thing I’ve been able to do is create a database of every curse tablet from my study area. Unfortunately, curses have been somewhat neglected by historians and archaeologists over the past century or so, meaning that the places they get published tend to be either old and hard to come by, or in such obscure journals that few libraries have them in their collections. Thanks to wonderful modern tech however, whenever I have managed to track a publication down I have entered all the information onto my digital database so it’s there for my constant reference. As I mentioned in my last post, I’m about finished digging in library basements, and the final total for curses from Roman Gaul, Germany and Britain stands at just over 300 – many fragmentary or unreadable, but a good number with texts long enough to get some juicy social and religious information about the people who were making them.

A screen shot from my database, made in MS Access 2010.

A screen shot from my database, made in MS Access 2010.

Having all the curses on a single database means I can quickly see patterns, and trends, like how the theft of clothing is the most common motive for cursing at Bath, but virtually non-existent in Mainz. I am getting useful data about gender, ethnicity and social status too, which will form the core of my social interpretations of the curses.

I still have a lot to learn, and I’m slowly making my way through books and online courses about the finer points of database creation and management. If you are a database wizard, I would love to hear your top tips – send me a message or write in the comments section below. Equally, if you’re just dipping your toe in the wonderful world of digital humanities for the first time and want some advice, get in touch and I’ll see what I can do!

Back to the Books

After what has felt like months of writing my probation report, preparing presentations and stressing over my upgrade mini-viva I have finally got back to what I love most about doing a PhD – researching!

My life is made all the more awesome because I get to work in buildings like this.

Yesterday I went to the Bodleian library in Oxford to read a book that few other university libraries have – Auguste Audollent’s 1904 collection of curse tablets. It’s probably the founding work in my subject area, because it was one of the first attempts to collect together all the known curses in one volume so they could be easily interpreted as a whole body of evidence. He was the first to group curse tablets based on motive, and over 100 years later we still use his five categories of legal, erotic, competition, commercial and prayers for justice. He also organised his collection by geographical location, making it nice and easy for me to get to the ones from Germania, Gaul and Britannia.

In particular, I was looking for the curses found in a graveyard in Kreuznach in the 19th century, which haven’t really been published since these early scholars collected them together. This one in particular struck me, and will probably be curse tablet of the month this month!

Audollent 101Above is how it appears in Audollent – the text of the tablet as read by him. There are no images in his book, for those I cross-referenced with the CIL, which is another late 19th-early 20th century corpus of Latin inscriptions.

The drawing of the tablet in the CIL.

The drawing of the tablet in the CIL.


My ability to read cursive Latin is really improving, and I can mostly identify and agree with the words that those older scholars read. Of course, I’d love to read the original tablets, and I’m certainly planning to get some site visits in sometime this year to try to get my hands on the real things.

It felt great to be back in the library yesterday. I didn’t realise how much I had missed researching. Finding curses I haven’t seen before and giving myself new things to think about is still the real draw of this project for me, and it’s something I will have a hard time stopping when it comes time to start writing up! From what I’ve gathered from lecturers, post-docs and other PhD students, I’m not alone in this. There’s always something more to read, another avenue to explore or idea to think about. My reading list only gets bigger every time I finish a book, and yesterday was no exception. Audollent collected a few curses written in Celtic alongside the Latin ones, so I have a few books on my list of later academics who have translated and interpreted those. Going into the Celtic curses is a more daunting prospect for me because I have absolutely no knowledge of the language, unlike the Latin which I can just about translate for myself. Nevertheless, I am looking forward to getting started – on I go!

Making myself presentable

One of the most important things I always knew I’d be developing while doing my PhD was my ability to speak in public. It has been clear to me from the outset that if I can’t communicate my research then there’s no point in doing it, especially as one of my main reasons for choosing to research curse tablets was to raise their profile in the study of Roman history.

Over the past couple of months I’ve had plenty of opportunities to practice talking to a range of different people about what I’m doing, thankfully with generally positive results! I’ve also been experimenting with different presentation styles to try to find out what I’m most comfortable with.

In May I gave a 20 minute paper to the OU Classical Studies department at their work in progress seminar, which I scripted beforehand. That’s also how I planned the 1 hour talk I did at Corinium Museum in June. The Corinium talk was much more nerve-wracking, as it was the first time I’d spoken for that long, and also the first time I’d talked to an audience of paying customers! Both went really well, and there were some great discussions afterwards with people who seemed to be genuinely interested in what I had to say. At both I focused on the curses from Roman Britain, which is the material I know best at the moment, and so is what I feel most confident in talking about.

Me at CoriniumIn June I also spoke at the Arts Faculty postgraduate research student conference at the OU – once about my curse tablet database, and once about my work with the Brilliant Club. I didn’t script either of these short talks and I felt more comfortable delivering them because of it. My natural style of presenting is quite animated and familiar, which I feel I lose when I’m reading from a script.

The problem I have with talking from notes, rather than a script, is that I tend to go off on tangents and not stick to time. My enthusiasm gets the better of me, and I keep remembering more and more things I want to talk about. It might be a bit of a hangover from when I was a museum tour guide, when I remembered my tour by associating all the information with the objects in the collection and my route through the space. Just seeing things and their relationships to other objects would act as a trigger for the information I needed to remember. When this is translated to a formal presentation setting I think it can come across as chaotic or amateurish so even though the delivery might be less natural and comfortable, I think scripting my talks in future is the way forward.

I’m going to upload the work in progress and Corinium talks to my page at, so if you missed them you can still find out what I said!

If you have any presentation tips for me, or want any advice, leave a comment below 🙂

The busy life of a PhD student

I’m really bad at blogging regularly – oops! Despite the outwards impression I might sometimes give, I’ve been really busy these past few months, and although I’ve thought about blogging now and then I’ve only managed to get around to it today.

So, what have I been doing since January?

The short and obvious answer is “my PhD.” Actually it’s surprisingly hard to break down the specific things I have been doing, because a PhD is such a huge project that you end up doing random little tasks for a day or two, and then sort of forgetting about them. Like the days I spent going back through all 200 curses on my database adding one piece of information that I’d left out the first time. Or the day I drove up to Milton Keynes to the library for a book, only to realise on reading it that it was barely relevant.

Having said that, there are plenty of productive things I have done. The biggest is the aforementioned database, which currently includes 260 curse tablets from Britainnia, Gaul and Germania. It’s not finished yet – I know of at least 30 I need to add, and no doubt there are more to find in obscure epigraphy journals written 100 years ago. I also have a table on my database with over 300 personal names from the tablets, sorted by gender, ethnicity and social status. This is the sort of thing I’m really interested in, as hopefully it will give me some insights into the kinds of people who were using curses at different times and places.

I have also been reading – a lot. There’s always more too, and the end of my ‘to read’ list constantly eludes me, like a bank note on a string.

(C’mon, you know that’s still funny…)

I’ve also started writing. My probation report – basically a draft of my first chapter, including a literature review – is due in the next couple of months, and I’m giving a few papers at internal seminars and conferences. I might post bits and pieces of my writing on here, we’ll see how that goes!

Oh, and I’ve also been teaching! I’m now a tutor for the Brilliant Club, an organisation that puts PhD students in schools with low participation in higher education. To any PhD students reading this blog, I cannot recommend them highly enough. If you really want a challenge and some excellent experience, get involved!

So, a very packed few months, and it will only get more busy as we get closer summer and the end of my first year. I will try to blog more, please let me know if you’ve got any questions or any feedback on the what I post! My twitter is on the side bar, and there’s the feedback form too 🙂

A ramble through Romanisation.

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.

A student’s justification

I wonder if people will get used to the confused and slightly panicked look on my face that greets their question “so what’s your PhD topic?”

I have been asked it a lot this week, and my reply is usually vague and mumbled – especially when asked by a non-classicist. The problem is that I instantly feel the need to justify what I’m going to be researching. The majority of people I have been talking to at the OU’s induction events have been scientists working on climate change, space exploration, biochemistry, and such things with real-world applications. I find it hard to spin a project like mine, when the outcome will not save a single polar bear, nor find water on an asteroid, nor cure meningitis.

But I’ve realised that this is the point of doing a PhD in an arts subject. We are inherently studying stuff with a less obvious value than the sciences, but no less important to the advancement of knowledge. Ultimately everyone is studying when they are studying because they think it’s awesome, and would be doing it anyway, regardless of the outcome.

So – ask me what my PhD is on. Go ahead, I’ll tell you.

I’m looking at Roman curse tablets – these things.

ImageImage from

They were small pieces of (usually) lead, which have been written on, and then deposited somewhere important. If you’ve ever seen HBO’s Rome then you’ve seen Servilia make one – it’s on YouTube (obligatory warning about adult language :P).

The real ones were made for a variety of reasons: cursing a thief, getting a girl to like you, securing victory for your favourite chariot racer, and so on. They touched every aspect of Roman society, but have always been considered by scholars as a superstitious, marginal practice. The aim of my PhD is to bring them into a more central place in our understanding of Roman religion, and see what they can tell us about how people thought about themselves and the world around them.

Naturally, there’s more to it than that; hopefully enough to write a thesis on or I might be a bit stuck. If you’re interested, keep an eye on this blog – I’ll write more as I go. A PhD requires justification, from beginning to end. This is just the beginning.