A passing reference in Pliny (Nat. Hist. 11.34) to a beetle with ‘horns of a remarkable length, two-pronged at the extremities, and forming pincers, which the animal closes with its intention to bite’ appears to be a reference to Europe’s largest native beetle Lucanus Cervus (the stag beetle) (Sprecher-Uebersax 2008, 146; Fig. 29).
Pliny finishes his entry on the insect by commenting that ‘these beetles are suspended from the neck of infants by way of remedy against certain maladies’. The term for beetle used by Pliny is scarabaeus which he uses as a general term for a range of Coleoptera (Beavis 1988, 157). In modern entomological terms this term more specifically relates to the Coleopteran superfamily Scarabaeoidea which consists of over 35,000 species worldwide. Naturally Pliny was not considering quite this many in Natural History, but defining the differences in nomenclature is important here.
The sentence relating to this remarkable beetle is just that – a sentence. It is part of the teasing nature of Pliny’s encyclopaedia that there is little consistency in the range of discussion relating to particular entries. In terms of this entry, the possibility for theoretical discussion are helpfully left wide open.
I will be discussing these ideas at the Iris Project and then at the Theoretical Roman Archaeology Conference later this year, but I’ve had the possibilities of this short phrase buzzing around in my head for twelve months already.
My PhD focus is Roman Britain where Stag Beetles are now, unfortunately, endangered (See NBN Gateway and PTES ) so the opportunities for considering these as physical amulets are, quite rightly, limited.
Modern records (from the past two centuries or so) of Lucanus cervus, indicate that the distribution of this species is predominantly in the south and south-eastern parts of Britain, with a few scattered records in the Midlands, north Wales and the north of England (Chinery 2012, 262; NBN 2016). It has been recorded in predominantly urban environments and is associated with a wide variety of host plants (Harvey et al. 2011, 24). In archaeological contexts it has been found in Iron Age/Early Roman deposits at Farmoor (Oxfordshire) and in mid to late 4th Century deposits at Kirkham (Lancashire) and Empingham (Rutland) (Buckland and Buckland 2006); the latter in a well deposit associated with a late Roman villa site.
This makes the idea that stag beetle could be ‘suspended from the neck of infants by way of remedy against certain maladies’ entirely plausible for the denizens of Roman period Britain. Note that the species is evident across Europe, so the considerations mentioned here are relevant to the wider Roman world.
So, how could one go about acquiring such an amulet? Lucanus cervus adult males are active from May to August in modern Britain (Chinery 2012, 262), making their seasonal collection the only option. There are many questions outstanding as to how this may have occurred: It is purely opportunistic? Is local knowledge important? Is there a trade in live/dead specimens? Could they be hunted, for example, by using trapped female and relying on natural pheromone attractants?
Beetles are hard-bodied insects and will, in normal circumstances, retain their body shape after death but the legs will contract and the whole exoskeleton will (over time) become increasingly brittle; to be strung as an amulet and worn around the neck, as Pliny suggests, makes breakages a real concern. Are they strung as pendants loosely? Pierced through the carapace? Held in a supporting frame?
Does this fragility, in combination with a seasonal opportunity for acquisition, make their duration of use particularly short? Perhaps, the complications implicit in these factors actively imparts an exoticism in the acquisition of such a pendant related to its magical or medicinal efficacy. It certainly seems plausible. The wondrous, the unusual and the exotic do feature regularly in both magical and medical texts: what Malinowski described as “coefficients of weirdness”.
In order to at least consider some of these questions I have attempted some simple experimental archaeological enquiries in order to make some simple observations pertinent to the Roman use of beetles as an object of personal adornment.
Via the internet I have acquired several hundred elytra (wings) of the beetle species Sternocera aequisignata, an Asian species of wood-boring beetle. The adults of this species are bright, iridescent green, and after a short adult life of 3-4 weeks making the next generation, the beetles die. Their carcasses are collected, particularly in Thailand, and utilised for jewellery making (beetlewing art).
A sample of elyta of Sternocera aequsignata acquired by the atuhor, showing variance in size and colouration.
Like many beetle species, S. aequisignata exhibit variations in both the size of fully-grown adults, usually based on a combination of genetic predisposition and available food to their larval stage, and colouration. Stag beetles are matte-black and dark red in colour and also exhibit variance in their maximum physical size (Figure linked here)
It sounds obvious, but beetle wings are hard. I suspect most people would not have had the opportunity (or inclination?) to handle live insects nor their fragmentary parts. In addition to Pliny, the myth of Cerambus is relevant to this discussion – repeated by Antoninus Liberalis (Met. 22), the particulars are less relevant to this discussion, but the story of Cerambus concludes with the comment that the beetles are used as toys by young boys and that the head of a stag-like beetle is removed to be worn as a pendant (Beavis 1988, 153; Sprecher-Uebersax 2008, 146). It is hyperbolic but I have no doubt that this could be achieved simply and quickly by hand, given the clear join between head and thorax in Lucanus cervus. They are able to fly, which may be their best defence mechanism against physical human intervention.
Snapped by hand
Perforated by hand using steel awl
S. aequisignata wings are both hard and brittle. They have sufficient strength to with stand some physical pressure; the convex shape protects particularly drop external pressure directed inwards rather than the other way around. They do, ultimately, snap without too great exertion and leave a sharp, jagged edge.
Piercing using a modern steel awl was simple and produced a clear, circular perforation through the elytra.
Beetles are very lightweight, weighing a few tens of grams. If only a part of this total mass is utilised (i.e. head only), its suspension is difficult as, speaking generally, pendants require a pendulum weight or structural shape to ensure a resting position on the chest/neck. S. aequisignata wings, when pierced were too lightweight to utilise as a drop-pendant. A stag beetle head might, perhaps, fare better, but the potential for additional elements to the beetle-necklace (e.g. beads) should be seriously considered if a lightweight suspension material is used. The use of a metallic necklace may reduce the need for a weighted pendant.
A replica Roman-inspired pendant
In creating a pseudo-Roman beetle pendant I have incorporated the above observations and additional elements pertinent to the preformative nature of magic in the Roman world. The image below shows my anachronistic creation (and I can’t stress the anachronism enough!): The wing has been supported to remain straight and static as an effort against its movement. I have incorporated a knotting technique learned as a scout leader – it is an alternating Reef Knot with a central core running through it by which it could be attached onto a larger element of a necklace, bracelet, furniture fitting, vehicle etc. This knot, as well as having a visual aesthetic to it, requires a small amount of work to develop (i.e. preformative knotting) and repeats several steps in an alternating order. The reef knot, in the Classical world, was known as a ‘Hercules knot’ and was itself an apotropaic symbol. These elements are all nods towards elements of magic in the Roman world.
I intend to report back after taking these concerns on the road to KS2 school groups and theoretically inclined archaeologists, having made several hundred such pendants and variants on this theme. No doubt carefully observations not made in the above will be made by both groups.
Beavis, I. C. 1988. Insects and other Invertebrates in Classical Antiquity. Exeter, University of Exeter.
Buckland, P. I. and Buckland, P. C. 2006. Bugs Coleopteran Ecology Package (versions: BugsCEP v.7.63; Bugsdata v.8.0; BugsMCR v.2.02; BugStats v1.22). [Available http://www.bugscep.com] (downloaded and accessed 21/07/2016).
Chinery, M. 2012. Insects of Britain and Western Europe (Domino Guides). Revised 3rd Edition. London, Bloomsbury.
Harvey, D. J., Gange, A. C., Hawes, C. J., and Rink, M. 2011. ‘Bionomics and Distribution of the stag beetle, Lucanus cervus (L.) across Europe’, Insect Conservation and Diversity 4. 23-38.
Sprecher-Uebersax, E. 2008. ‘The Stag Beetle Lucanus Cervus (Coleoptera, Lucanidae) in Art and Mythology’, Revue d’ Ecologie 63. 145-151.