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…

View original post 1,713 more words

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.

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.

Cursing in context

This is just a super quick post to point out that I’ve uploaded the presentation I gave to the Classical Studies Work in Progress seminar onto my academia.edu page. The link is here if you are interested! It was a 20 minute paper entitled “Cursing in Context: the Case of Bath” and was a quick run-down of some of my initial thoughts about the experience of making a curse tablet at the site, and how the architecture of the temple space contributed to the ritual actions.

If you have any comments, suggestions or questions about what you read, get in touch!

 

Roman Bath

Hiatus

Here’s the thing…

If you’re wondering why I have managed a grand total of one post on this blog since I started my PhD almost a month ago, well I’ve been a little busy. You see, like the sensible, rational person I am, I decided to embark on a three-year research project in the same month that I am getting married. As the big day is TOMORROW (eek), I have been a little preoccupied, and haven’t quite managed to get my thoughts together enough to follow up on much PhD work. (In case my supervisors are reading this, I’ve done some, I promise!)

 

I have some posts planned, and I will get them up after we’re back from honeymoon.

 

Bye for now, wish me luck! 🙂