August 9th, 2016
Extremely rare curse tablets made of gold and silver instead of the usual lead have been unearthed at the ancient site of Viminacium in Serbia, about 60 miles east of Belgrade. Archaeologists were excavating land adjacent to power plant before construction of an addition to the plant when they found a large family tomb decorated with colorful wall paintings. There were multiple rooms containing multiple burials from the middle of the 3rd century A.D. through the 5th.
Buried with one of the skeletons dating to the 4th century were two small lead cylinders holding three rolled up sheets, one of silver, two of gold. The silver and gold sheets had writing and symbols inscribed on them. One of them has Greek letters but is written in Aramaic, not Greek. Archaeologists have identified an intriguing combination of names on it: Baal, Yahweh, and Thobarabau, Seneseilam and Sesengenfaranges, three deities/demons (depending on whether your perspective is polytheistic or Christian) native to what is now Syria. A curse tablet inviking the powers of both Baal and Yahweh is unprecedented.
The other two aren’t inscribed with letters at all, but unknown symbols. Traditionally curse tablets (defixiones in Latin) were written in Greek or Latin with some ununderstandable words. These were voces mysticae, belonging to no known human language, meant to appeal to the deities and demons in words only they could understand. They also used charakteres, symbols believed to represent astrological signs or cosmic forces, or, in the case of Christian curses, angels and other heavenly host. The silver curse tablet is the only one ever discovered written solely in symbols.
Found throughout the Greco-Roman world even well into the Christian era, curse tablets called on spirits, demonic or divine powers to control a target — destroy an enemy, force restitution of stolen goods, get someone in the sack or make the opposing team lose. The tablets were thin sheets of lead on which invocations against the targets were scratched. They would then be rolled or folded up and placed in a relevant area usually below the ground, graves, wells, temples, sanctuaries or the homes of the cursed.
The earliest known extant curse tablets were found in the Greek colony of Selinunte in Sicily (modern-day Castelvetrano where they grow the greatest bright green olives) and date to the early 5th century B.C. The 22 Selinute tablets were mostly litigation curses intended to kneecap opponents in a lawsuit. Other popular types of curses include ones against rival sports teams, rival businesses, thieves and love or sex spells. Men tended to deploy curse tablets to arouse women’s passion, while women mostly used curses to stimulate men’s affection.
About 1,500 ancient curse tablets have been found. The vast majority are made of lead, some of lead mixed with tin and copper. A tiny fraction are inscribed on precious metals. These are the first curse tablets ever discovered in Serbia. It’s a testament to the wealth of Viminacium that the only defixionis ever found there are extremely rare examples in gold and silver.
Viminacium was the capital of the Roman province of Moesia Superior. Its strategic position near the border with the Goths made it one of the most important cities in the empire. It had a permanent military camp and was a prosperous trade center. Excavations since its rediscovery in the late 19th century have unearthed the largest Roman amphitheater in the Balkans, 40,000 artifacts, 700 of them gold and silver, and more than 14,000 Roman-era graves (the largest Roman cemetery ever discovered), some of which contained extremely fine and rare jewels, one of which contained unique gold and silver curse tablets.
The section of the cemetery in which the tablets were unearthed is also home to a number of Christian graves, and archaeologists don’t rule out that some of the dead in the tomb may have been Christian. Orthodoxy wasn’t cemented in the 4th century and the syncretism evinced in the tablet could be the work of a Christian drawing in influences from adjacent, albeit seemingly conflicting, beliefs.