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Roman curses discovered on ancient tablet

  • ancient curse scroll.jpg

    The tablet after it was unrolled.Roger Tomlin

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    The letter "R" as seen through a scanning electron microscope.Maidstone Area Archaeological Group

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    The tablet transcribed.Maidstone Area Archaeological Group

An ancient Roman lead scroll unearthed in England three years ago has turned out to be a curse intended to cause misfortune to more than a dozen people, according to new research.

Found in East Farleigh, U.K., in the filling of a 3rd to 4th Century AD building that may have originally been a temple, the scroll was made of a 2.3- by 3.9-inch inscribed lead tablet.

Popular in the Greek and Roman world, these sorts of "black magic" curses called upon gods to torment specific victims.

Overall, more than 200 curse tablets have been found in Britain. The largest collection was found in the thermal spring at Bath -- about 100 tablets -- and are displayed in the Roman Baths Museum.

The second-largest collection is from the Roman temple at Uley, and some are displayed in the British Museum.

Most curses related to thefts and called upon a god to fulfill the malevolent wishes detailed in the inscriptions.

One of the tablets from Bath, for example, prayed that its victim should "become as liquid as water," while another on display at the British Museum cursed "Tretia Maria and her life and mind and memory and liver and lungs mixed up together, and her words, thoughts and memory."

According to the Maidstone Area archaeologists, it is reasonable to assume that the names listed were of people who lived at the site.

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"Since the Romans were the first inhabitants of England who could read and write, they represent the earliest inhabitants of East Farleigh that we may ever be able to put a name to," they said.

Further conservation work will be carried out on the scroll starting at the end of the month. Experts hope that this will result in more letters becoming visible.

Rolled up to conceal their inscriptions, the tablets were either nailed to the wall of a temple or buried in places considered to be close to the underworld, such as graves, springs or wells.

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The scroll, unearthed in the Kent village had been carefully rolled up and buried, most likely in the third century AD, similar to other curse tablets found throughout Europe.

The researchers tried to read the fragile scroll without unrolling it by using a technique called neutron computed tomography imaging at the Paul Scherrer Institute in Switzerland, but "the resolution was not sufficient to discern any writing on it," said the Maidstone Area Archaeological Group, which made the finding.

As the curse tablet, or defixio, was unrolled, the inscribed letters became visible under a scanning electron microscope.

Roger Tomlin, lecturer in late Roman history at Wolfson College, Oxford, and an authority on Roman inscriptions, was finally able to decode the inscribed text.

"The tablet is not necessarily complete, but what there is consists of two columns of personal names," Tomlin told Discovery News.

He deciphered the Latin names Sacratus, Constitutus, Memorianus, Constant[...] and the Celtic names (Atr)ectus and Atidenus. Eight other names are incomplete.

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Interestingly, the scribe wrote a few of the names backward or upside down.

Experts speculated that this was probably intended to invoke "sympathetic magic" and make life especially difficult for the named and shamed individuals.

However, the motive of the curse and the curse itself remain a mystery.

"No god is named. Indeed, we cannot be sure that we have the beginning of the text," Tomlin said.