Discovered by metal detector in 2007 in South Oxfordshire, UK (PAS: BERK-0B6771 ) this small fragment of inscribed gold sheet is a truly interesting object. The rectangular sheet measures 63.1mm x 28.3mm and weights a minute total of 1.41g.
Gold lamella from South Oxfordshire (C)Portable Antiquities Scheme
[[CC BY attribution]]
The epigraphic component has been thoroughly published by Tomlin (2008). It begins with three lines of charaktêres, larger than the subsequent text (and in these cases they bear close similarities to Greek lettering proper), followed by thirteen and a half lines of Greek text written by a ‘Latinate’ hand (Tomlin 2008, 219) – someone more familiar with writing in Latin than Greek. The first three lines of the true Greek text (l. 3-6) are the voces magicae or ‘magical names’, which may be names of gods or other supernatural creatures on their own or in combination with a ‘magical phrase’ (Wilburn 2012, 71-72) which, whilst grammatically correct and legible is otherwise nonsensical. The voces magicae are particularly prevalent in the Papyri Grecae Magicae. The remaining ten lines are a prayer, of sorts, outlining what the practitioner intends for the amulet by calling upon the powers in the preceding lines: “Make with your holy names that Fabia whom Terentia her mother bore, being in full fitness and health, shall master the unborn child and bring it to birth; the name of the Lord and Great God* being everlasting”.
*The Lord and Great God is mentioned in a number of other magical texts and doesn’t refer to the Judaeo-Christian God
The sheet was rolled up following its creation and may have been designed to be worn in an ‘amulet case’ (a hollow tube, often of gold or other precious metals which allowed such text to be worn on the body. See Kotanksy 1994 for a catalogue).
The function of this amulet is clear – it is designed to protect Fabia through the dangerous time of childbirth. The inclusion of the mother’s name might suggest that she has commissioned the lamella herself, but it could simply be a matronymic to better identify Fabia. The presumption is that Fabia is the intended wearer of the inscription and that she should do so during or in the time leading up to giving birth. In this case the lamella, like others, is personalised to an individual and is designed to be efficacious at a very specific time.
At the shortest end of the potential timescale of use for this object, it could be worn during a birth lasting only a few hours. The successful birth of the child would render the lamella’s purpose fulfilled. Dating from AD 250-350 (based on the handwriting), this is the only example of a lamella designed for this function from the Roman period. The creation of both the inscribed gold sheet and (the presumed) case into which it originally sat are carefully considered and personalised for this individual in order to proactively provide supernatural assistance through the perilous process of childbirth. Its creation must be in advance of childbirth – the text is looking to the future – and so we might speculate that Fabia was considered to be particularly at danger from her pregnancy. Perhaps she had issues with a previous birth? Or this was a first child and the lamella provided additional support? Perhaps the mother or a midwife noted a potential problem with the birth? Or Fabia was in some way unwell? The exact reason is lost to us, but the function of this object is clear – to provide supernatural protection to one person at an explicitly dangerous time of her life. It is an excellent window into the function of these objects in Roman Britain.
It is worthy of note that the end result of an inscribed sheet of gold, may be simply the product of a much larger and more complicated magical ritual. As a case in point, the ‘Sword of Dardanos’ spell from the Greek Magical Papyri (PGM IV. 1716-1870, see Betz 1992) also results in a gold sheet inscribed with letters and symbols, but explicitly calls for a number of other ritual elements including: creating an inscribed gemstone and placing it under the tongue; a spoken prayer; a burnt offering; several days of work. The Dardanos spell incorporated several elements, but rather gruesomely the part involving the gold lamella requires the user to “give the [gold] leaf to a Partridge for it gulp down and then kill it. Then pick it up [from inside the bird] and wear it around your neck after inserting strips of the herb called ‘boy love’” (PGM IV.1825-30). Taking this into account Fabia and/or Terentia may have had to organise a great deal more than a written component to allow the lamella to work.
Lamellae are, generally speaking, rare in Roman Britain – a total of eleven are known. Ten of these are in gold, the other in lead alloy. Nearly half of those known to us have been discovered in recent years and recorded with the Portable Antiquities Scheme. The South Oxfordshire lamella was declared Treasure after its discovery and subsequently acquired by the British Museum.
Distribution map of Lamellae in Roman Britain [by the author]
Betz, H. D. (ed) 1992. The Greek Magical Papyri in Translation (Including the Demotic Spells). 2nd Edition. Chicago and London, University of Chicago Press.
Kotansky, R. 1994. Greek Magical Amulets: The Inscribed Gold, Silver, Copper and Bronze Lamellae. Part I: Published Texts of Known Provenance (Papyrologica Coloniensia XXII/1). Opladen, Westdeutsche Verlag
Tomlin, R. S. O. 2008. ‘Special Delivery: A Graeco-Roman Gold Amulet for Healthy Childbirth’, Zeitschrift fur Papyrologie und Epigraphik, 167. 219-224.
Wilburn, A. T. 2012. Materia Magica: The Archaeology of Magic in Roman Egypt, Cyprus and Spain. Ann Arbor, University of Michigan Press.