“Excuse me sir, do you want to put a curse on someone?”

By Francesca Cotugno

Obsecro, domne, nonne tua interest aliquem defigere? This was probably a sentence which might have been said multiple times, all around the Roman Empire. In order to curse someone in the Roman Empire a curse table was probably a quick and readily available option.

Curse tablets are inscribed pieces of metal, usually in the form of small, thin sheets, intended to influence, by supernatural means, the actions or welfare of persons or animals against their will (Jordan 1985: 151). This might mean subjecting a thief to a nasty fate or making someone fall in love with you. As Roger Tomlin put it in his presentation of the Bath curse tablets they were the “loser’s last resort” (Tomlin 1988: 60).

But not all the surviving curse tablets are similar and this is one of the things that intrigues the LatinNow team. We are trying to understand these documents, which sometimes contain the innermost desires of people: how are they differently distributed around the provinces and how did they adapt the feature of cursing someone with a lead tablet to their own culture and language, often creating something new and unique?

These curses are usually called lead tablets but, actually, this is not the only metal that was used for this purpose, as we also find other soft metals like pewter and tin. In general, the tablets are rectangular sheets which were 6-12cm long and 4-8cm wide when unrolled in order to provide a writing surface which was inscribed with a sharp point like a stylus. As you can see from the picture (figure 1), the LatinNow team is producing replicas of these tablets for the forthcoming Touring Exhibition in September and October 2019 (https://latinnow.eu/touring-exhibition/).

Figure 1. The Vilbia curse tablet replica in progress.

Curse tablets have been found in different provinces of the Roman Empire, but they belong to different periods and to different linguistic areas and backgrounds. Whereas the Romans spread the habit of written curses, indigenous communities coloured them with their own distinctive features, which may reflect, in some cases, ancient oral practices. This is perhaps evident in the case of the curse tablets from Roman Britain, where the writers adopted the practice of the curses with special concern for theft. In Britain, the richest site for curse tablets is Bath, ancient Aquae Sulis, where they were deposited in the hot spring between the second and fourth centuries AD. Here the writers used a lot of formulaic language, like the form si mulier, si baro (e.g. Tab. Sulis 44), which appears to indicate Germanic influence.

In places such as Germania Superior, among others, theft, as far as we can tell, was not such a major topic for cursing someone. In Mainz, people were cursed in the first and second century AD at the sanctuary of Isis and Magna Mater because the writer was holding a personal grudge and not necessarily because he or she was asking revenge for a stolen good. DTM 1 is one of the few curses in which the curser is asking for a punishment against a thief (in this case, a certain Gemella allegedly stole a fibula). The majority of curses here are invocations expressed in a quite plain language which did not have to be learnt by heart or copied from magic books, but they also include some more formal terminology, and stylistic elements of artificial or popular rhetoric.

Taking into account two different curses, one from Bath, and another one from Mainz, it is possible to note some similarities and divergences.

Tab. Sulis 4 is also known as the theft of Vilbiam. Whether this curse was about a kidnap or a robbery has been discussed by Paul Russell (2006).

Latin – transposed version Translation
ELL[…] M[. 2-3.]TA QVI EAM [……-]
May he who has stolen Vilbia become as liquid as water ..who has stolen it (or her) Velvinna, Exsupereus, Verianus, Severinus, Augustalis, Comitianus, Minianus, Catus, Germanilla, Jovina.


Why is Vilbia not a woman? It is difficult to understand this word as a personal name: firstly, it is not attested elsewhere, and no other British curse tablet is prompted by the theft of a woman. We have curses prompted, for example, by the theft of silver coins (Tab. Sulis 4) or for the theft of a pan (Tab. Sulis 60). I agree with Paul Russell that it is not really likely that it refers to a woman. He suggests that the form may be related to Middle Welsh gwlf, and may refer to some sort of pointed object. Tomlin suggested that Vilbia was perhaps a form of fibula (“a brooch”). In the curse tablets from Bath we have also other curses concerning this kind of item, such as Tab. Sul. 15 made for the theft of a bracelet.

One of the most interesting curses from Mainz is DTM 15: the curse of Aemilia Prima, where this woman is doomed to never bloom again like the sheet (charta) used for cursing her. This curse is probably against Narcissus’ lover, but like in other curses from Mainz, the real motive of the curse is not explicit.

Latin – transposed version Translation (Blänsdorf)
Prima Aemilia Narcissi agat, quidquid conabitur, quidquid aget, omnia illi inversum sit.

Amentita surgat amentita suas res agat.

Quidquid surget omnia interversum surgat Prima Narcissi aga<t>: como haec carta nuncquam florescet sic illa nuncquam quicquam florescat

(Whatever) Aemilia Prima, (the lover?) of Narcissus may do, whatever she attempts, whatever she does, let it all go wrong. May she get up (out of bed) out of her senses, may she go about her work out of her senses. Whatever she strives after, may her striving in all things be reversed. May this befall Prima, (the lover?) of Narcissus: just as this letter never shall bloom, so she shall never bloom in any way

An interesting feature of this curse is that the text uses a magical orientation of the script since it is partially written in a spiral counter-clockwise, creating a “verbal box”.


Figure 2. DTM 15 (from Blänsdorf et al. 2012)

We must take into account the converging and diverging features of so-called ‘curse tablets’. On the one hand, both of these two documents share an grudge towards someone, expressed through formulae that echoed the juridical style, as if the writer were making a contract with some superior being, in order to curse someone. On the other, the details are quite different: the one who stole vilbia is doomed to become liquid as water while Prima Aemilia will wither and never bloom. In one case we are dealing with a theft, in the second perhaps a bitter lover. Also, there are linguistic features which are rare and we must try to interpret, like the use of amentita that appears as a neologism, in Mainz, or vilbiam, in Roman Britain.


Blänsdorf, J., Lambert, P., & Witteyer, M. (2012). Die defixionum tabellae des Mainzer Isis- und Mater Magna-Heiligtums: Defixionum tabellae Mogontiacenses (DTM). Mainz.

Tomlin, R. S. O. in Cunliffe, B., Davenport, P., Care, V., & Tomlin, R. (1985). The temple of Sulis Minerva at Bath (Tab. Sulis). Oxford.

Jordan, D. R. (1985) ‘Defixiones from a well near the Southwest corner of the Athenian Agora.’  Hesperia 54.3, 205–255.

Russell, P. (2006). VILBIAM (RIB 154): Kidnap or Robbery? Britannia 37, 363-367.



LatinNow is Spellbound at the Ashmolean

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.

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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.




LatinNow gets a helping hand from Cherwell School Students

From 8th-12th October, the Centre for the Study of Ancient Document in Oxford (HQ of the LatinNow Project) played host to two Year 11 students from the Cherwell School, with us as part of their Work Experience placements.  In this guest blog, Charlotte W and Finlay HC dish the dirt on what it’s really like to work in the LatinNow office…

Charlotte writes…

“I didn’t really know what to expect from a week’s work experience at the Centre for the Study of Ancient Documents. As a fifteen-year-old, you hear many terrifying rumours of what life was like before the internet. What I definitely didn’t expect was to be asked to help contribute to LatinNow, a huge EU-funded project investigating the Latinization of the north-western Roman provinces, or to help document original artefacts from Nottingham University Museum for the LatinNow exhibition around Europe, including over 2000 year old coins and pottery sherds!

It was amazing to see these relics from our ancient past up-close and to  begin to explore some of the stories they held. Dr Francesca Cotugno was kind enough to explain one of these objects, a replica of the tombstone of a Marcus Caelius, and I was very surprised to learn what a gruesome story it unlocked.

The story goes (and I hope I get this right…) that a German hostage of the Romans named Arminius managed to deceive everyone that he was loyal to the Romans. He gained Varus’s trust, a man highly respected by the Roman senate, then deliberately led him and the 3 Roman legions he commanded into a trap where they were slaughtered mercilessly by Germanic tribes. When the emperor Augustus found out about what happened he was so distraught, as Rome had never suffered a defeat like this ever before, he banged his head the wall shouting “Give me back my legions!”. Arminius was then killed by his own Germanic people as they decided the act he committed went too far and was too ruthless.

Tombstone of Varus, who died in AD 9 at the Battle of Teutoburg Forest in Germania. 

This tombstone to Marcus Caelius is unusual as it explicitly says that he died in the Varian war. We don’t know much about his role in the war, but we know from his representation that he was a decorated soldier who must have been relatively wealthy as he is flanked by his freedmen.

I also, in the documenting process, came in contact (with gloves!) with several replicas of iron age coins. In the pictures we took, you can’t see exactly how small the coins were but they were tiny, smaller than a penny. And they were so intricately embossed.

Coinage was introduced  to Britain during the Iron age and inscribed coins . Earlier coins mostly just had symbolic animals on them so therefore if there appeared to be writing you could tell it was from a later time. There were also much bigger and chunkier coins from the Roman period, (these were originals so I was constantly holding my breath when getting them out of the bags) which had the name and carving of the Roman Emperors on them. I hope in the pictures you can see how ornate they all are and can get a sense of how incredible it was see things that have been used by our ancient ancestors.

So coming out the other end of this week, I’m relieved to report that Classics is not just some musty dusty academia for elderly scholars, I’ve found it to be entirely different. It’s exciting and very interesting for curious minds, and even though at the beginning of the week I didn’t have a clue what I was going into, I have really enjoyed myself. So thank you LatinNow!


Finlay writes:

 “On Monday the 8th of October I arrived at the Centre for the Study of Ancient Documents for work experience. In large part this involved looking at ancient writing equipment for the LatinNow Project. As part of this project to study the Latinization of the North-Western Roman Empire team is using ancient writing equipment as a means of demonstrating how Latin spread throughout Gaul (present day France and Belgium), the Iberian peninsula (present day Spain and Portugal), the Germanias and Britannia (present day Germany and Britain).

For the most part, my work involved summarising the data from British archaeological sites where Roman writing equipment had been found. The hope was to show to what extent Latin had caught on in Britain and compare it the rest of Roman Europe, and so better understand why different local cultures adapted to Roman rule differently. For example, in many of the British archaeological sites ancient Roman styli were found. A stylus, as I found out over the course of the week, was a sharp metal object used to scratch letters on a wooden tablet covered in beeswax. Some of the other artefacts I was looking for were inkwells, seal boxes (used to protect the seals that were used on papers or bags) and wax spatulas (these were used to scrape the wax back into place on a tablet for reuse). As these were methods of writing the Romans used and introduced to Europe, the amount of these objects found in an area could indicate literacy, as well as how common Roman culture was there. The notes and locations took the form of a grand database that I had the opportunity to help fill out.

Working with Charlotte, a fellow student from Cherwell school, we also had the chance to help in curating part of the touring exhibition that is part of the project. We were given a selection of ancient artefacts to measure, weigh and photograph and record in a table. Although we had to wear glove, handling the ancient pottery and coins, with my own hands was an especially interesting and unique experience. The coins in particular were extraordinary as you could see the dents and scratches of a lifetime’s use, without having to look through a glass display case. One coin was from the rule of Marcus Aurelius and you could see the wear and tear from its use throughout his 19 years as Emperor.

Coins in tray
Four Roman coins in the LatinNow Touring Exhibition, on loan from the University of Nottingham

The last part of my work on the LatinNow project involved looking at a database of archaeological sites in the Iberian Peninsula under the guidance of Dr Noemi Moncunill, and finding the coordinates of the sites to add to the table. For instance, Torre Alta in Cadiz was one of the sites and the coordinates were 36.52 by -6.149. The end goal of this part of the project was to use the coordinates to create a geomap of Roman writing equipment to visually demonstrate how Latin spread throughout the area. Comparing this to data found in Britain will demonstrate how Latinization uniquely affected native cultures and why people took Latin up – such as status, economic success, citizenship, or literacy.”

The LatinNow and CSAD teams are very grateful to both Charlotte and Finlay for all their hard work during their time with us, and for agreeing to be our guest bloggers this month. Thanks, both! 

Later this month, on 26th October, we’re appearing in the Ashmolean Museum’s LiveFriday event ‘Spellbound’. Come and find us in the Reading and Writing Gallery to learn how to put a Roman curse on your enemies. More on this in next month’s blog!

St Andrews’ Celtic conference in Classics: ‘archaeologizing’ epigraphy and some navel-gazing


By Alex Mullen

St Andrews was deluged with Classicists in mid-July for the Celtic conference in Classics. The atmosphere was one of scholarly fun and I even skipped nearly the entire ceilidh (I adore ceilidhs – awesome organized fun!) because I got into a debate about, essentially, ‘archaeologizing’ epigraphy.

This was a direct result of the panel: ‘(Un)set in stone’ on fresh approaches to epigraphy at which Eleri Cousins (St Andrews) was keen to get us to think about innovative ways to treat epigraphy. I could only attend the first day but it was clear that she had brought together a set of people with diverse and complementary interests, including those who were not primarily epigraphists and even, goodness, a non-classicist! Eleri had instructed me to present something ‘theory driven’ and it was great to spend some time before the conference thinking about how to talk in this specific context about the theory, methods and concepts that guide my research, in this case a discussion of Gaulish, the Celtic language of Gaul.

About a decade ago Carrie Vout (Cambridge) asked me at an interview ‘What is interdisciplinarity?’. One of those questions that’s easy to ask but so difficult to answer. I think I’ve spent the last decade working it out. Although my answer at the time, something along the lines of ‘It’s when you integrate not just the evidence from a range of disciplines, but also the methods and approaches’, hasn’t changed that much, I feel I now might practise what I preach. Indeed, Eleri’s panel and the discussions afterwards made me wonder how unusual I might still be in my close engagement with several of the disciplines within Classics. This is thanks to my broad undergraduate degree, when I began to specialise in Indo-European linguistics, sociolinguistics and ancient history, graduate training which added Celtic linguistics and investigations into the material culture of the Iron Age and Roman West, and the luxury of years of Research Fellowships which allowed me to pursue archaeology properly. I might not have realised it at the time but marching up and down fields strapped into geophysics equipment humming tunes to keep pace indirectly transformed my research. By becoming ‘also an archaeologist’ not only do I understand the discussion of material culture better, but attending the conferences, discussing issues at dinners, collaborating on projects has made me think in more interdisciplinary ways. And it has made me an advocate of broad and deep classical training in our Schools, Higher Education and beyond.

mag.jpgFieldwork in some challenging conditions in Kent

Prompted by Eleri, in the talk I discussed what you could term ‘an archaeological approach to epigraphy’. Naturally this could integrate key approaches in archaeology, for example appreciation of materiality (focus on the object and its relations to human practice), context (at all scales) and phenomenology (the experience of creating, displaying, viewing etc.), but also tools used by archaeologists, such as petrological analysis, RTI or GIS to coordinate a range of data. Perhaps, however, what might be most useful to adopt in epigraphy from modern practices of archaeology is the constant questioning of assumptions and weighing up of possible interpretations driven by self-analysis and criticism. Many epigraphists do this, of course, but perhaps not with the level of care and rigour of those trying to make material culture ‘speak’. Texts can make us think they are telling us what we need to know, and we need to question that every time.

RTIReflectance Transformation Imagining viewer showing section of Greek text


Cursive and Curses!

By Janie Masséglia

The second half of June proved to be a busy one for the LatinNow Project with more than 200 visitors and students taking part in our new workshops and activities in less than a fortnight.

JM with St Ebbes

Since we put together our LatinNow Outreach Events Menu 2018, two of our most popular activities have been about Old Roman Cursive and writing curse tablets.

Our trusty cardboard shrine to Sulis accompanied me to the Family Discovery Day at the University of Nottingham, to two in-school sessions at the Iris Classics Centre at the Cheney School in Oxford, and then again – this time with Alex making a trio – to the History and Archaeology Festival at Nottingham’s Lakeside Arts.  For this activity, as well as having the chance to handle replica writing instruments of various kinds, people were encouraged to decipher mock lead-tablets describing the loss or theft of various items, before writing their own and dedicating it to Sulis. I had been initially disappointed to discover that the small squares of scratch paper I hoped would replicate child-friendly lead plaques were not available in silver, but only in rainbow effect. Sometimes the quest for absolute authenticity doesn’t lead to the best visitor experience – our visitors (especially the younger ones) have been drawn to the bright colours and have loved experimenting with Old Roman Cursive when it gives such an eye-catching result. We’ve embraced it and are determined from now on to ‘be more unicorn’.

shrine at cheney diptych

One of the unexpected highlights of the History and Archaeology Festival was the chance to meet re-enactors of various periods. We talked about writing techniques with a medieval Benedictine, and even faced an invasion of Iron Age Celts who came up to tell us they didn’t like the Romans much, and they had no intention of learning about Latin! Once Alex was able to reassure them we loved Celtic too, and even showed them some Celtic words hidden in a Latin contract we had on our stall, we managed to broker a peace. Now that’s community engagement.

JM with Benedictine

Our other popular session has been our military ‘codebreaking’ for Primary school pupils, an activity that Alex, Joshua Ward-Penny and I successfully road-tested on 250 children and their parents for the IntoUniversity programme last March. This session, focussing on the different languages spoken in the empire and how the Roman army sent its messages, always ends with a race to translate a secret message and save a Roman legion from an attack from marauding Britons. Last week, the pupils of St Ebbe’s Primary did a fantastic job, and a little girl named Mahisa stormed to victory several minutes before her classmates. It’s a pattern that we’ve started to notice, that children who speak more than one language are especially adept at codebreaking cursive, and it’s been great to talk about multilingualism with young people who really understand what we mean.

Pisa Conference – Variation and Contact in the Ancient Indo-European Languages

By Francesca Cotugno

Pisa banner

On 19-20th of April the University of Pisa – which is also my alma mater ­– hosted an international conference entitled Variation and Contact in the Ancient Indo-European Languages: Between Linguistics and Philology. It was the first stage of the two-part colloquia followed by the conference held at St. Hilda’s College, in Oxford, on May 17-18 2018.


The aim of both of these events was to discuss the nature of contact, variation and change in ancient Indo-European languages by bringing together scholars at any stage of their career to encourage an interdisciplinary dialogue and to provide a special forum to foster new lines of research and collaborative endeavour. The Pisa colloquium featured two dozen speakers. It offered me the opportunity to present our project with a paper: Latinization of the north-western provinces: sociolinguistics, epigraphy and bilingualism. The Germanies.


The conference proved to be an ideal setting for debating the appropriate framework for analysing the nature of the linguistic changes taking place in the Iron Age and Roman period as two, seemingly local Indo-European languages, Germanic and Celtic, both well-attested since the Iron Age, were gradually interacting with and then partially superseded by Latin during a period of change that would see Latin emerge in several respects as the dominant language by the end of the imperial period.  My paper provided an overview of the possible sociolinguistic variables symptomatic of language change in the Germanies and a discussion of their connection to other social phenomena.

My case studies were chosen to study phonological difference from Classical norms as a way of revealing the interaction between Germanic, Celtic and Latin. Among the broad range of inscriptions those featuring personal and deity names are particularly relevant and the diffusion of theonyms can provide insights into the interaction of Roman and local religious traditions.

The first stage of analysis has shown that it is virtually impossible to draw a clear cut linguistic division between Celtic or Germanic languages. Instead I have been creating gradient maps in order to chart Celtic and Germanic features. Crossing-referencing these elements together with the archaeological evidence, it seems that in the Rhineland area, for example, for the most part personal names show a increased level of Celtic features, whereas theonyms often have Germanic features and are linked to Germanic words (e.g. the matres ‘the mother goddesses’, as we have Matronis ALAGABIUS (CIL XIII 8529, Koln) or [Mat]ri BVS SVebis Jethungabus (CIL XIII 8225, Deutz, Köln) or matres Alaferhviae, Alaterviae und Alat(e)ivia from Aachen).

As the project develops I will explore further how linguistic variation and change may, or may not, correlate with local population groups and their histories, and explore further possible local, provincial and imperial interactions.

What can personal names tell us about cultural contacts in Antiquity? Some reflections on names and identities in Bordeaux

By Noemí Moncunill

“Two people who do not speak the same language come across each other. One writes the name of the other. This fleeting scene seems timeless and banal to us; only the modest written trace that results from it keeps its memory alive. Yet it is thanks to it that we can, even centuries later, relive the exact moment of this linguistic contact.”

Coline Ruiz-Darasse (CNRS Ausonius – Université Bordeaux Montaigne), author of this remark, recently gathered a group of researchers from different countries in order to see how the study of personal names can contribute to our understanding of cross-cultural contact and linguistic change in Antiquity. This stimulating seminar took place in Bordeaux in April 2018 and LatinNow team members had the chance to participate. The title of this workshop was “Comment s’écrit l’autre. Sources épigraphiques et papyrologiques dans le monde méditerrannéen antique”.

Noemi Bordeaux names

The day started with a methodological presentation delivered by the organiser, Coline Ruiz-Darasse. There followed two papers on code switching in personal names, multiculturalism and Latinization in the western provinces, both presented by LatinNow contributors. Marie-Thérèse Raepsaet-Charlier (Université libre de Bruxelles), senior advisor of LatinNow, reflected on the multicultural picture of society arising from the study of personal names in northern Gallia.  Noemí Moncunill (University of Nottingham and CSAD, Oxford), LatinNow researcher on the Iberian Peninsula, analysed the adaptation of Iberian names into Roman duo or tria nomina, in order to assess how this can be related to linguistic change in Hispania.

After a delicious, typically French lunch at the “Boeuf sur la Place” restaurant, the focus of the meeting moved to the East in the afternoon. Dan Dana (CNRS, Anhima) outlined examples to show how “assonance names” can be considered as “cultural mirrors” in Thrace; Alain Delatre (Université libre de Bruxelles) analysed linguistic variation and interference in the impressively wealthy documentation of Christian Egypt and, last but not least, Ignasi-Xavier Adiego (Universitat de Barcelona) teased out the linguistic and phonological perspectives of the adaptation of Lycian names into Greek and, conversely, of Greek names into Lycian.

The seminar was very rich in comments and insights on the part of participants and from the audience and it will lead to a monograph on the subject. We are already looking forward to reading it!


Roman writing equipment at the Roman Archaeology Conference

I’m just starting to draw breath after a fun and busy few days in Edinburgh last week at the Roman Archaeology Conference (RAC). I’d relatively recently been in Edinburgh giving a keynote at an interesting conference on theorizing contacts in the Roman world, but that was in December and the darkness meant I hadn’t appreciated any of the striking topography and monuments that make Edinburgh so special. It’s a beautiful city! RAC was brilliantly run by Ben Russell and his colleagues and there were over 400 delegates from several different countries. It felt inclusive and international.

I was at RAC to run a panel on writing equipment for the LatinNow project. As part of our study of the Latinization of the north-western Roman provinces, we are looking at archaeological finds of writing equipment as a possible proxy for Latinization. I kicked off the session with a talk which outlined the exciting scope of what we hope to do and the depressing realities (issues of identification and interpretation of material, very patchy data etc.), before going into some detail on one of our provinces, Britannia, for which we can cautiously use some pretty impressive datasets, for example from the Portable Antiquities Scheme and the Rural Settlement of Roman Britain project. The results from the latter project underline the importance of road networks, status, urban centres, and the economy in the spread of literacy and Latin.

Find spots of Roman-period writing equipment from rural excavations (data from Rural Settlement of Roman Britain project, map by Michael Loy)

The second speaker was Javier Alonso from Mérida who presented both a global view of the Roman-period writing equipment from Hispania and a case-study from Emerita. His work over many years has tried to impress the importance of recognizing and publishing this material on archaeologists, museum staff and academics and shows what interesting work can be done if the material is carefully assessed in context. The third speaker was Oriol Olesti from Universitat Autònoma Barcelona who zoomed in on numerous sites in north-eastern Spain in the second and first centuries BC. The key messages from this paper were that the economy was an important driver in the uptake of literacy and that many sites, including those referred to as ‘Roman outposts’, with writing equipment seem to produce only Iberian graffiti in this period rather than Latin, which complicates the use of writing equipment as a proxy for Latinization in this area and period. I want to know more about this gap in the epigraphic record: is it ‘real’? LatinNow’s Noemí Moncunill, who was at RAC to present a poster created jointly with MJ Estarán Tolosa, will continue to work with Javier and Oriol as we try to understand the material from Hispania.

Oriol graffiti
Iberian graffiti from Ca l’Arnau (150-75 BC), a ‘Roman outpost’ (Sinner and Ferrer 2016)

Next we moved east and heard from Sylvia Fünfschilling about the fascinating material from Augusta Raurica (Augst) in the context of Roman Switzerland. Sylvia impressed on us the large number of types of object that could be used for writing, some of which were beautiful, for example this inscribed stylus, which is similar to a find from the Bloomberg excavations.

stylus Augst
Inscribed stylus from Augusta Raurica

Hella Eckardt from Reading discussed the various types of identities that may have been associated with writing equipment in the Roman world and looked particularly at the use and display of metal ink-wells across the Roman world. She highlighted the fact that writing equipment in graves of the very young could be aspirational rather than a reflection of what they had done in life. The next paper by Josy Luginbühl, Bern, followed on neatly and presented some of the material from her PhD thesis. We were treated to some intriguing examples of writing equipment deposited in Roman-period graves. Josy is interested in the fact that women are rarely directly identifiable as writers of our epigraphic materials, but appear in images with writing equipment and with this material in burial contexts. We look forward to hearing more as she continues her research! I think that more women in the Roman period are literate than we generally assume and LatinNow will be exploring this in more detail.

Colin Andrews of the Open University finished off the session with a close analysis of seal boxes, presenting the very latest finds and more evidence to back up his view that they were, in Roman Britain at least, and probably elsewhere, used to protect the seals that were used on the strings around bags which contained, e.g. money. In my view, though this means seal boxes cannot be taken as a direct proxy for literacy (we previously thought they sealed strings around stylus tablets), it does show the use of symbols and writing in administering the economic world, which, as it became increasingly complex in the Roman period, relied on literate systems for its control.

painting writing equip and coins
A wall painting from the House of Julia Felix, Pompeii, showing the close association of writing and the economy

The LatinNow team is looking forward to continuing our collaboration with experts on writing equipment and is very grateful to all the speakers and the audience at RAC. We would also like to thank Alex Smith and Tom Brindle for help with the RSRB data, to Scott Vanderbilt and Michael Loy for maps and support, and to Lacey Wallace for help with PAS data.


Roman Lead Ingots from Germania

By Francesca Cotugno

One of the aims of the LatinNow project is to combine the analysis of writing with the material analysis of writing implements and epigraphic media. By drawing upon different strands of evidence – from archaeology, linguistics and history – we hope to get a clearer picture of the specific circumstances that were involved in the take up of Latin during the initial phases of Roman occupation of the north western provinces. In this post I want to draw attention to recent research on Roman lead ingots that were mined and cast along the eastern and western banks of the Rhine because they highlight the kind of insight – as well the conundrums – that this combined approach can yield.

ingot 1

Figure 1: Ingot from Saintes-Mairies-de-la-Mer (picture from Eck 2015)

Ingots are fascinating because they are impressed with names which offer us vitally important information about the imperial control of mineral sources as well trade and other cross-cultural dynamics in the early Roman Empire. Take the first ingot, which was found in the commune of Saintes-Maries-de-la-Mer in the Rhone delta close to the Mediterranean coast. It is impressed with the words FLAVI VERVCLAE PLUMB(um) GERM(anicum) ‘Germanic lead, product of Flavius Verucla’, along its side whilst  the top of the ingot is impressed with the words, IMP(eratoris) CAES(aris) ‘property of the Emperor Caesar’. Now let’s look at the second ingot, which was found miles further north on the north east reaches of the Rhine in Bad-Sassendorf (see figure 2). This has part of the personal name L. FLA[—] moulded on one side, and on the other side there is another version of the same name L. F. VE. It is possible that both of these formulations are the same as those of the Rhone delta ingot: L. FLA[vi Veruclae plumb. Germ.] and L. F[lavi] VE[ruclae plumb. Germ.]. In fact, the isotope analysis of the lead confirms that both ingots came from the same mine in the area of Sauerland (c. 120km from Cologne) and that they were cast in the first century CE.

Ingot 2

Figure 2: Ingot from of Bad-Sassendorf /Heppen (Image from Eck 2015)

If we turn to the historical evidence we can see that there would have been a very narrow time span (roughly from 7 BCE to 9 CE)  when lead mines on the eastern banks of the Rhine would have come under Roman control (and would therefore have been subjected to an imperial toll) as the imperial mark suggests. The salient dates here are 7 BCE – the year in which Tiberius was summoned back to Rome from his campaign in the territories east of the Rhine, and September 9 CE – when 35,000 men, almost three Roman legions and their auxiliaries, were either slaughtered or enslaved at the Battle of Teutoburg Forest by an alliance of Germanic tribes. After the permanent withdrawal of the legions from the area to the east of the Rhine, the Romans would have been forced to look for mineral resources in Germania Superior and Inferior on the west bank of the Rhine

As we would expect, lead ingots dating from the period in which Caligula was emperor (37–41 CE) come from Germania Inferior, the area west of the Rhine. Two ingots that were found near the river Rhone, at Fos-sur-Mer and at Ile-Rousse, on Corsica, are interesting in this respect. The ingot from the Rhone valley has the following moulded mark, IMP(eratoris) • TI(berii) CAESARIS • AVG(usti) • (plumbum) GERM(anicum) TEC(-). This can be roughly translated as ‘Property of the Emperor Tiberius Caesar Augustus, Lead from Germany’ . The ingot from Corsica shows the following text: CAESAR • AVG • IMP • GERM • TECF. The last letter is smudged and is difficult to decipher.

ingot 3

Figure 3: Ingot from Ile-de-Rousse (picture from Raepsaet-Charlier 2011)

In both cases, TECF and TEC remain unexplained. LatinNow’s Special Adviser, Prof. Marie-Therese Raepsaet Charlier has carried out extensive analysis of these ingots which I can only summarise here. She suggests that TEC is not a Latin word but may be of either Celtic and/or Germanic origin. This is interesting because the isotope analysis reveals that the lead was probably sourced in the area of Mechernich, west of the Rhine. Therefore the mine would have been in the vicinity of an altar where the matres and matronae Textumehae (distinctive groupings of three female deities, both mothers and matrons) were worshipped, and may reflect the first element of their name. An alternative, possibly related, interpretation is also possible. According to this, TEC may be derived from the Indo-European root teg- ‘to cover’, found in Celtic tribal names like Tectosages, and found in a toponym of the area, Tectae. This root is thought to have given rise to the Celtic term, tecto– ‘possession, property’. According to both interpretations, TEC would be an example where Latin was combined with Celtic perhaps in order to integrate the imperial control of mining resources within the non-Latin context. Both interpretations are possible, but an explanation involving unknown abbreviations or a mistake in Latin may also be an option. We await further clues to help to solve the mystery!


Further Reading

Bode M., Hauptmann A. & K. Mezger (2009), ‘Tracing Roman lead sources using lead isotope analyses in conjunction with archaeological and epigraphic evidence—a case study from Augustan/Tiberian Germania’, Archaeological and Anthropological Sciences 1: 177-194.

Long L. & C. Domergue (1995), ‘Le véritable plomb de L. Flavius Verucla et autres ingots. L’épave 1 des Saintes-Maries-de-la-Mer’, MEFRA 197-2: 801-867.

Raepsaet-Charlier M. (2011), ‘Plumbum Germanicum: Nouvelles données’, L’antiquité Classique 80: 185-197.

Raepsaet-Charlier M. and Raepsaet C. (2013), Der in Tongern aufgefundene Bleibarren mit dem Namen des Kaisers Tiberius. In G. Creemers (ed.), Archaeological Contributions to Materials and Immateriality (Atuatuca 4). Tongeren, pp. 38-49.

Sociolinguistics meets archaeology: the LatinNow GIS

One of the planned outputs for LatinNow is a publicly accessible GIS. This will be an easily navigable web-based interface (similar to tools produced by ORBIS or EngLaId), which will display, amongst other things, inscriptions of the north-western Roman provinces as points on a map. Users will be able to search for inscriptions, filtering the data by e.g. location, date, and inscribed material; and then be able to display the text of the target inscription.

Public-facing GIS tools from ORBIS and EngLaId

The data for the Latin and Greek inscriptions in this GIS comes from EAGLE, and comprises over 100,000 inscriptions marked up (largely through an automated process) with EpiDoc. With the help of our European Special Advisor Pietro Liuzzo, we obtained a collection of all the EAGLE files relevant to our provinces of study — i.e. the collection of ‘Classical’ language inscriptions which we can use in our GIS. However, it is not simply a case of dumping these files straight into a GIS: the collection contains multiple appearances of the same inscription in different Epigraphic corpora (e.g. Epigraphic Database Clauss Slaby; Epigraphische Datenbank Heidelberg; Roman Inscriptions of Britain), or even different editions/readings of the same text from the same corpus. We have also identified some problems with the automatic EpiDoc’ing process. For example, some of the files were EpiDoc’ed without geographic co-ordinates — essential references for displaying the data geospatially — and much work is therefore needed to make the data ‘GIS’ ready, either by manually adding in co-ordinates or linking the data up with Pleiades (where possible). The GIS team is currently dedicating most of its time to the cleaning and processing of the material in this way.

Multiple entries for the same inscription from different Epigraphic corpora. Entries with the same ‘tmID’ refer to the same inscription.

We do, however, already have a ‘dirty’ research version of the GIS, for use by the project team. We have been playing around with search queries, and have started to look for spatial patterns in the inscriptional record. As an example, here is a search which brought up inscriptions from Britain dated between AD 50–100 and written on wood. In addition, we have been visualising our inscription points against freely available GIS data from other projects (e.g. OxRep, PAS), in order to think about the social factors

Screenshot of the ‘dirty’ data, from the Germanies, Noricum, and Raetia.

which might have affected the uptake and use of Latin. For example, do we find more stone inscriptions the closer we go to quarries? How does the epigraphic habit change with the movement of the military? What does the distribution of writing equipment tell us about literacy and Latinization in the various provinces? The quality of the data available is necessarily different across provinces, but the GIS allows us to ask questions about Latinization at various scales across the whole project area.

Example query run on the inscriptions of Britannia. Here, inscriptions dated AD 50–100 and written on wood (missing, for example, the Bloomberg tablets, which have not yet been published online).

Work on the project GIS is ongoing. The main priorities at the moment are the cleaning of the EAGLE data; the addition of the non-Classical language inscriptions, and the input of more contextual data alongside our inscriptions. We hope to launch the public GIS (in some working form or another) by the end of 2019.