University of Leicester archaeologists unearth ancient curse

1,700-year-old curse tablet to god Maglus invokes destruction of cloak-pilferer

An ancient curse aimed at a thief is one of a number of treasures to be unveiled to the public for the first time, following the largest archaeological excavation the city of Leicester has ever seen.

Over the past three years, a team of up to 60 archaeologists from University of Leicester Archaeological Services has been working on a number of sites in the city. Almost 9% of Leicester's historic core has been subject to investigation in some form, giving new insights into the appearance and development of the Roman and medieval towns.

One of the most interesting finds from a site on Vine Street was a 'curse' tablet – a sheet of lead inscribed in the second or third century AD and intended to invoke the assistance of a chosen god. It has been translated by a specialist at Oxford University, and reads:

'To the god Maglus, I give the wrongdoer who stole the cloak of Servandus. Silvester, Riomandus (etc.) ... that he destroy him before the ninth day, the person who stole the cloak of Servandus…' Then follows a list of the names of 18 or 19 suspects. What happened to them is not recorded.

Before the discovery of this object, archaeologists only knew of the names of three or four of the inhabitants of Roman Leicester, so the find is of great significance.

Richard Buckley, co-Director of the University of Leicester Archaeological Services, said: "Curse tablets are known from a number of Roman temple sites in Britain, and are thin rectangular sheets of lead bearing the 'curse' inscribed with a point or stylus. They were usually rolled up and were probably nailed to the wall of a temple or shrine. Most curses seem to relate to thefts and typically the chosen god is asked to do harm to the perpetrator. It has been suggested, on the basis of name forms and the value of items stolen, that the curses relate to the lives of ordinary people, rather than the wealthy, and that they were perhaps commissioned by the dedicator from a professional curse writer.

"The Leicester curse is unusually well preserved and had not been rolled up. After initial cleaning by a conservator, it was clear that it was covered in handwritten script, including a column of text which looks rather like a list. The inscription is currently being translated by a specialist at the University of Oxford. He notes that the Latin of the script reflects the spoken language in several ways. There are 18 or 19 names, a mixture of commonplace Roman (like Silvester and Germanus), Celtic (like Riomandus and Cunovendus), and 'Roman' names found in Celtic-speaking provinces (like Regalis). The god's name might be a title - 'prince' in Celtic.

"The curse is a remarkable discovery, and at a stroke, dramatically increases the number of personal names known from Roman Leicester. So far, we have the soldier, Marcus Ulpius Novantico, from a military discharge certificate of AD106, 'Verecunda' and Lucius' from a graffito on a piece of pottery and 'Primus' who inscribed his name on a tile he had made. The name forms will help us to understand the cultural make up of the population, whilst the subject matter tells us about the spread of spoken Latin and the religious practices of ordinary people".

The excavations have also produced many thousands of sherds of pottery, together with building materials, animal bone and a large variety of smaller objects, including Roman weighing scales, coins, brooches, gaming pieces and hairpins. A find of note from the medieval period is a piece of high status chain mail.

Four large sites were excavated in 2005 and 2006 as part of the Highcross Quarter and Leicester Square Developments, funded by Hammerson plc and Thomas Fish and Co. respectively. Now that the fieldwork has finished, the archaeologists would like to share the discoveries with the public

On Saturday 2nd December, between 11am and 4pm there will be a 'meet the specialists day' at the Jewry Wall Museum (by kind permission of Leicester City Council) with posters and displays of finds to showcase some of the main results of the work.

Images of the ancient curse tablet will be on show- the tablet itself is in safekeeping with experts in Oxford.

Highlights of the project have included:

  • The discovery of the lost medieval churches of St Peter and St Michael and their graveyards, with the excavation of over 1600 burials

  • The excavation of a substantial Roman town house of the 2nd century AD and an adjacent public building

  • The investigation of the northern Roman and medieval town defences and the discovery of part of the town wall, together with an interval tower

  • The collapsed wall of the macellum or market hall, one of Leicester's Roman public buildings – rare evidence for the appearance of a Roman structure in the city.

  • The investigation of a deep sequence of medieval and post-medieval properties on Highcross Street, with evidence for a brewery

  • New evidence for Dark Age Leicester, from the discovery of Anglo-Saxon structures of the 5th-6th century AD

The site directors will be on hand to talk about the results of the excavations and there will be the opportunity to view some of the finds and meet specialists in Roman pottery, medieval and post medieval pottery, animal bone, human bone, building materials, small finds and environmental evidence.

Richard Buckley commented: 'The recent excavations have been on a scale rarely seen in British cities, and for the first time in Leicester it has been possible to look at large areas of the Roman and medieval town. This has made it possible to examine complete buildings and to see how an entire neighbourhood changed over almost 2000 years.

'Now begins the painstaking process of analysing the results of the project. The work will involve many specialists and is expected to take several years.'

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A private viewing will be held the day before the public exhibition (on Dec 1), and guests for this will include the Deputy Lord Mayor and Deputy Lady Mayoress, representatives from city organisations and societies, the Highcross Quarter project and the Leicester Square project. Pro-Vice-Chancellor of the University of Leicester, Professor Bill Brammar and Head of the School of Archaeology, Professor Colin Haselgrove will be among the University guests in attendance.

NOTE TO PIX: pictures can be taken at the public exhibition on Saturday Dec 2 at the Jewry Wall Museum, Leicester.

Jpeg images of the curse tablet and excavation site available from pressoffice@le.ac.uk


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