Janie Masseglia 

Friday 26th October saw the LatinNow team in their smart new project shirts, offering a curse-writing activity to visitors at the Ashmolean Museum’s late-night ‘Spellbound’ event. While we’ve played host to some large crowds before, the event broke all records for our Public Engagement activities to-date, as we dealt directly with more than 300 people in 2 hours – more than one person every 30 seconds!

Alex, Janie, Michael, Francesca and guest-LatinNow-er Dr Lydia Matthews offered the ‘Curses, Curses!’ activity so that visitors could try their hand and reading and writing Old Roman Cursive, with those at the back deciphering our mock lead tablets while they waited, those in the middle ranks planning their own curses on our new worksheets, and those lucky enough to have secured seats inscribing their chosen texts onto our popular metallic scratch paper. Once completed, visitors were invited to dedicate their rolled-up curses in our new and much-improved shine.

Inspired the temple of Sulis at Bath, our miniature shrine featured a sculpted ‘gorgon’ head (made for us by Anthony Harden of Harden Plaques) mounted inside a naiskos-style nympheum. In the low light of the Ashmolean’s Reading and Writing Gallery and lit from inside with electric candles, we were very pleased with the final result. The new shrine features several improvements on the cardboard prototype used in our early Schools visits: now in durable wood, the plinth hides a series of slopes which send the deposited curse tablet into one of two niches: one signalling that Sulis will answer their petition, the other that she has declined. As well as giving the final act of dedication a bit more pizzazz than simply dropping it into a box, we also found that this method (drawing on attested practices of ‘lot’ divination elsewhere, but not an authentic part of the experience of Roman visitors to Bath) allowed us to return the curse tablet to the visitors, letting them take the fruits of their labours home.

Huge thanks to Ashmolean for looking after us – especially Sarah Doherty and Bettina Zagortis for giving us such a great space in the Reading & Writing gallery. Our thanks too to the Oxford museum visitors who really threw themselves into producing Old Roman Cursive, and came up with some fantastic (and often entertainingly political) curses. More photos can be seen on our Twitter account @LatinNowERC.