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Roman "Curse Tablet" Discovered in England

Kate Ravilious
for National Geographic News
December 5, 2006
 
Archaeologists in Leicester, England, have recently uncovered a treasure trove of Roman and medieval artifacts, including a 1,700-year-old Roman "curse tablet."

Curse tablets were metal scrolls on which ancient Romans wrote spells to exact revenge for misdeeds, often thefts of money, clothing, or animals.

Such tablets have been discovered previously in Britain, often near ancient Roman temple sites, but this is the first one to be found in Leicester (see United Kingdom map).

The Leicester tablet, which was uncovered near the ruins of a large Roman townhouse dating from the second century A.D., was found unrolled. Curse tablets were typically rolled up and nailed to posts inside temples or shrines.

The newfound tablet appears to have been written by, or on behalf of, a man named Servandus, whose cloak had been stolen.

The writer inscribed a curse into a sheet of lead, asking the god Maglus to destroy the thief.

Measuring around 8 inches (20 centimeters) long and 3 inches (7 centimeters) wide, the tablet reads:

"To the god Maglus, I give the wrongdoer who stole the cloak of Servandus. Silvester, Roimandus … that he destroy him before the ninth day, the person who stole the cloak of Servandus …" A list of the names of 18 or 19 suspects follows.

Richard Buckley, co-director of the University of Leicester Archaeological Services, which is conducting the excavation, said the discovery provides crucial clues about life in Roman Britain. The names on the lead sheet are of particular interest, he noted.

"Some of [the names] are Celtic, and some are Roman. It helps us to understand the cultural makeup of the population," he said.

The tablets are thought to have been issued by ordinary people, rather than the wealthy, Buckley added, which helps explain why a missing garment called for action from the gods.

"If a cloak is all that you have, then it is pretty important," he said.

Roman Homes, Medieval Churches Found

The excavations are part of a major dig involving a team of 60 archaeologists from the University of Leicester.

Over the last three years nearly 10 percent of the city center has been excavated prior to the construction of new commercial and residential development.

The dig has produced a wealth of artifacts from the period when the Roman Empire ruled Britain, from about A.D. 43 to 410.

In addition to Servandus' curse tablet, the Roman townhouse excavation has produced another curse tablet that has yet to be translated, along with thousands of shards of pottery, Roman weighing scales, coins, brooches, gaming pieces, animal bone, and hairpins.

At other sites in the city the archaeologists have uncovered medieval churches dating from the 11th to the 16th centuries, as well as graveyards with more than 1,600 burial sites.

The archaeologists also found a medieval street frontage of four properties, one of which had evidence of a brewery in its backyard.

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