Object in focus: The love-charm of Polemius

A 1935 discovery during early excavations at the northern Roman town of Corbridge, Northumberland yielded a singularly fascinating magical object for Roman Britain. The object in focus here is a gold finger ring, decorated in openwork and consisting of sixteen facets, the edges of each are decorated with openwork peltas and each facet contains a letter or a leaf-stop.


The effect is to create elaborate see-through lettering. The letters are all Greek and spell out the phrase:

ΠOΛEMIOYΦIΛTPON (transliteration: Polemiou philtron) which translates as “The love charm of Polemius”.

In a recent blog I discussed the importance of written words and phrases to install good luck on an object or the person who uses it and this ring appears to use the same sort of magical mechanism – words as a source of supernatural power (van den Hoek et al. 2015). It was found in the relatively metropolitan site of Corbridge so the use of Greek shouldn’t come as a shock as the Greek language did feature throughout most of the province of Roman Britain. The ring is in the British Museum and published in Roman Inscriptions of Britain II (Frere and Tomlin 1991, no. 2422.12).

There are a great many betrothal charms from Roman Britain which are worn as declarations of love, often showing two people kissing or right-hands clasped in the dextrarum iuncto – a symbol of marriage. Other love tokens use phrases such as ‘My Darling’, ‘Sweet love’, or ‘Live for me’ and thus the Polemius charm doesn’t really fit into this category of ‘Romantic love’.

It may be presumed that the ring was owned by a man named Polemius, but it is possible that the name relates to the craftsperson producing the object. It is also, somewhat unclear how such an object may be used. Following the presumption that it is owned by Polemius, he may have worn it himself as an object intending to provide support in his love life (love life/sex life, who knows?) – in the same way that a Utere felix device might promote good luck and a generalised supernatural benefit to its user, this ring aimed to use the power of words to achieve this more specific function.

Perhaps he may have intended to give the ring to the object of his affections? Whether this was with or without their knowledge could be of serious interest. As a declaration of love between two people, it makes sense as an affectionate love-token, but as a clandestine object secreted on or around a person to influence their emotions through magical means it takes on a wholly different meaning. The specific ritual use of a ring in this manner is certainly unclear – the Papyri Grecae Magicae and Papyri Demoticae Magicae offer no real clues because, despite the existence of a number of spells and rituals which utilise a finger ring (PGM VII.628-42, XII.201-69, XII.270-350; PDM XII 6-20) all require the use of a setting or intaglio as the focal element of the magical rite rather than an inscription incorporated into the band itself. Thus we might consider the ring a bespoke creation – a unique thing made for or by Polemius.

Many of the more familiar Greek Magical gemstones (see the Campbell-Bonner database of the international corpus  and an earlier blog on one such example from Britain) incorporate Greek lettering or whole Greek words into their imagery. Polemius’ charm does not, however, use many of the other ‘magical’ elements (voces magicae, vowel series, palindromes, images or names of Gods, demons and other supernatural entities) visible in such examples.

The singular named link, of Polemius (and I am assuming that this name refers to a real human rather than a deity, demon or other supernatural force) intricately ties the efficacy of this object to one man. The question is whether Polemius was the person who created other charms on demand, as ritual practitioner (dare I say it, ‘magician’?) and it was his esoteric knowledge that formed the functioning part of the ring, or whether it was the name of the person who used it in one of the ways I briefly describe above.

Other openwork rings made from gold are personalised with names, though with less specific intensions.  In this category we can include those promising long life to Aemelia (Frere and Tomlin 1991, no. 2422.1), also from Corbridge, Eusebius (Frere and Tomlin 1991, no. 2422.5) from Bedford, and Olympios from Stonham Aspal, Suffolk (Frere and Tomlin 1991, no. 2422.10). Those of Aemelia and Eusebius are written in Latin, Olympios’ in Greek.

Given the explicit named link to one person and the frequently efficacious links in magical epigraphy between objects and individuals the ring clearly was designed to fulfil a very specific problem. We might assume that Polemius was having particular problems in the love department and this ring was an attempted solution. Helping Polemius to fall in love, or for someone to love him, or for a relationship to be retained etc. The ring could have served a medicinal effect instead of a magically emotional one – as a supernatural solution to a physical problem. Impotence perhaps, or infertility?



Frere, S. S. and Tomlin, R. S. O. (eds). 1992. The Roman Inscriptions of Britain, Volume II, Fascicule 4. Stroud, Administrators of the Haverfield Bequest.

Van den Hoek, A., Feissel, D. and Hermann Jr., J. J. 2015. ‘More Lucky Wearers: The Magic of Portable Inscriptions’, in Boschung, D. and Bremmer, J. N. (eds) 2015. The Materiality of Magic (Morphomata 20). Paderborn, Wilhelm Fink. 309-356.


The Walking Dead?

The twitter account of the Museum of London Archaeology (@MOLArchaeology) posted a link on June 8 to an interesting burial practice from Roman London which features in the Museum’s current high-profile exhibition ‘Roman Dead’: the use of iron shackles irreversibly attached to the limbs of the deceased – an idea, promoted in their blog on the subject from March 2016, which may be linked to a fear of the dead by the living.

As Mike Marshall pointed out on twitter, and MOLA themselves suggest in their blog, the term “shackles” is somewhat misleading as a shackle is a chained and removable form of bondage – these iron rings were neither. @MOLArchaeology continued: “The iron ring from the Crossrail excavations at Liverpool St. could not be opened and was probably too small to slip off, suggesting it had been forged onto the arm shortly before or after death”. And expanded the corpus with “Two burials with leg shackles were found at Finsbury Circus”, then postulating the interesting question whether this was “…a ritual to brand the bearer as a criminal, prisoner or slave in the afterlife or deny them final rest? Or did these Romans fear that the dead might walk again?”. The thread finished with a link to a similar practice from the Driffield Terrace excavations in York.

Well what a question – did the use of non-removable iron bands represent a material manifestation of a fear of the dead or the un-dead? Well for starters we should point out that the iron rings often accompany the mutilation of the skeleton somehow, like by perimortem beheading and this is a relatively unusual thing to come across in Romano-British burials. This topic is helpfully featured also in an article in the publication of the 2015 Theoretical Roman Archaeology Conference “Fear of the Dead” (Quercia and Cazzulo 2016) wherein the authors identify both these and additional strategies for the restraint of the deceased from northern Italy: straps which bound the arms and legs; nails in the burial and, in one example, driven into a skull; the removal of the torso and inclusion of an unguentarium in the pelvis; removal of feet; and the use of a wooden board strapped around the neck.

These examples are, to put it mildly, unusual in the grand scheme of Roman burial practices but a fear of the dead is not an unreasonable explanation for these practices. There are numerous textual sources in the Greek Magical Papyri (PGM, see Betz 1992) which advocate the use of the dead as a source of power or as a supernatural medium. A passage in PGM IV.2145-2240 illuminates the effect of such magical practices:

For wrecking chariots: Burn garlic and a snake’s slough as an offering, and write on a tin plaque “NEBOUTOSOUALETH BEU ERBETH PAKERBETH and ONOUPH; Overturn him, NN, and his companions”. Bury the tablet for 3 days in the grave of someone who died untimely; he will come to life for as long as it stays there”.

A passage in PGM XIII. 1-343 goes a step further and attempt to fully resurrect the dead:

Resurrection of a dead body: “I conjure you, spirit coming in air, enter, inspire, empower, resurrect by the power of the eternal god, this body; and let it walk about in this place, for I am he who acts with the power of Thayth, the holy god”.

If the iron work and mutilation were attempts at preventing the dead from rising up again, what prompted the decision to add the iron rings or remove a head? The untimely dead, featured above, the ‘Biaiothanatoi’ (Quercia and Cazzulo 2016, 30) may have been particularly vulnerable to the effects of magical practices. Premature passing, suicide, death in childbirth, murder victims, and others were the ‘restless dead’ – those who went before their time. Their exploitation was not necessarily for the purpose of recreating a zombie apocalypse, they may have been used as vessels to deliver a message or direction to a supernatural entity or, in some conceptual way, their un-used potential, power, ‘essence’, ‘soul’ etc. could be harnessed by the living. PGM IV.296-466:

Wonderous spell for binding a lover: Take wax from a potter’s wheel and make two figure, a male and a female. […….] And take a lead tablet and write the same spell and recite it. And tie the lead leaf to the figures with thread from the loom after making 365 knots while saying as you have learned, “ABRASAX, hold her fast”. You place it, as the sun is setting, beside the graves of one who has died untimely, placing it beside also the seasonal flowers”.

This link to the untimely dead does not, however, fully answer the question as such deaths must have been far more commonly encountered than the burial practices under discussion here. It is, at least, a stepping off point for trying to make sense of the thing. The chap from the Crossrail excavations was an adult, but had not died of old age and nor had any of the examples restrained in York. It’s certainly an issue studying Roman magic that it gives you a tendency to see magic everywhere, but these burial practices are good candidates for representing material strategies to, perhaps, prevent the deceased from helping anyone. Could the deceased rise from the grave of their own accord without living human agency involved? Again the weight of the numbers of untimely dead devoid of such interventions suggests otherwise or, at the very least, suggests that a different strategy was used that did not leave an archaeological trace.

Quercia and Cazzulo (2016) also suggest that particularly deep burials and those capped by stones could also represents attempts at some sort of restraining of the dead as things that were fundamentally unmovable by an individual. These may also have been things that have been overlooked throughout the past centuries of archaeological enquiry! Iron rings, in and of themselves, were probably uncomfortable but may not have completely prevented physical movement by a living person wearing such a thing. Perhaps then they were an allusion to restriction? Did the material matter – why iron? Good ol’ PLiny (HN XXXIV) at least suggests various medicinal uses of iron and iron rust. Presumably there was a logic in being able to forge straight onto a limb that meant iron was the only real choice. On a living participant that would also have been an intensely painful procedure, but is there more to it.

It’s certainly a bit of a leap of faith, but why do we not also consider the ‘deviant’ ringed and mutilated burials as attempts to prevent something being done to the remains rather than the remains themselves being the pejorative agents in this? Perhaps that’s just my retrojected assumptions about how the un-dead ‘work’ from modern fictions and folklore surrounding it? I’m not sure if anyone else has made the claim yet, but the practices of binding and restraining of the dead in such a manner could have been a realistic attempt at protection of the deceased themselves from the living rather than the other way around. Believing that practices which exploited chthonic powers through the recently dead were undertaken could have prompted the pre-emptive projection of the dead by preventing them from walking around in thrall to any living person with a spell book and the correct materia magica.

A reference to the use of iron rings, touched on in PGM IV.2125-39, offers another suggestion:

“A restraining seal for skulls that are not satisfactory [for use in divination], and also to prevent [them] from speaking or doing anything whatever of this [sort]: Seal the mouth of the skull with dirt from the doors of [a temple] of Osiris and from a mound [covering] graves. Taking iron from a leg fetter, work it cold and make a ring on which have a headless lion engraved. Let him have, instead of his head, a crown of Isis, and let him trample with his feet a skeleton (the right foot should trample the skull of the skeleton)…”

Immediately from this example there are allusions to the practices of using an iron ring (note: large enough to fit on a human(?) head) and the use of feet, but the additions of these materials are designed to restrain or seal the remains from being useful to anyone else. The important thing to take away from this example is that the additions of these materials may have been by someone attempting a magical ritual themselves – accessing a grave shortly after internment may have been difficult, but certainly was not impossible. Rather than a caring family protecting the deceased, such examples may represent the attempt at silencing or sealing the dead – to restrain them in their graves in an attempt to protect the living from their knowledge or interference rather than their undeadness. In this scenario the ‘living’ means an individual/group with a vested interested in the dead staying that way.  Thus in this capacity it may be that the dead weren’t being restrained because it was the fact of their coming back to life that was the main concern; not only was this believed to be possible, but they may return with information or knowledge that was detrimental to some of the living. Any sane person would do the same, right?

Pure speculation of course, all of it, but my goal with these musings has been to take the conversation towards understanding the behaviour in a more nuanced way and accept that these practices were reacting to quite specific social situations in specific places rather than a generalised fear of the dead rising up again.



Betz, H. D. (ed). 1992. The Greek Magical Papyri in Translation.

Quercia, A. and Cazzulo, M. 2016. ‘Fear of the Dead? ‘Deviant’ Burials in Roman Northern Italy’, in Mandich, M. J. et al. (eds) TRAC 2015: Proceedings of the twenty-Fifth Annual Theoretical Roman Archaeology Conference. Leicester, TRAC. 28-42.



Jet Bears and Magical Stars

As part of my PhD research I have been travelling around the UK to check out museum collections; part of this involves coming across objects I had read about but not seen in the real world. Perhaps the example of this category which brings me most pleasure is the disparate group of tiny jet figurines which depict a bear. Seven such bears are known to modern archaeology from Britain: Four from Colchester, two from York, and one from Malton. A further two are known from Cologne and Trier in Germany. The individual finds are well published in Nine Crummy’s 2010 Britannia paper ‘Bears and Coins: The Iconography of Protection in Late Roman Infant Burials’. As the title suggests, there is a strong correlation between these scant finds and infant burials in the late Roman period. In addition to the bears there are two functionally and morphologically similar Jet ‘big cats’ – from Chew Park Villa and Chelmsford.

FIGURE 1: Jet bears from Malton (left) and Bootham, York (right). Respectively in the collections of Malton Museum and Weston Park Museum, Sheffield. Low-res images by the author. 

The distribution of these finds in York, Colchester (and Eastern Britain generally), and also Cologne is paralleled by the 22 known jet gorgoneia pendants (12 from Britain); these have a strong association with inhumation burials of young-adult females in the 3rd and 4th centuries AD (Eckardt 2014, 112-116; Parker 2016). We know that there is a considerable industry in jet manufacture in York (see Allason Jones 1996), but there are also considerable collections of jet and jet-like materials in Colchester and London.

distribution map

FIGURE 2: Distribution of jet object, from Roman Britain, depicting either bears, big cats, or Medusas. Note the strong correlation between these objects and places. 

Upon visiting the museums which have the bears, I was struck by the prevalence on the objects of something I’d overlooked on the figures and drawings of the published references and something which is not addressed in the literature: the presence of incised decoration on the back of the bear. By ‘back’ I mean anatomically – visually this is the upper surface of the object.

img_20180419_133939.jpgFIGURE 3: Jet bear from Bootham, York. Incised decoration on shoulder hump and rump. In the Weston Park Museum, Sheffield.

Two of those from Colchester exhibit this feature: The bear from Abbey field burial CF166 and the bear from the Joselin Collection 87/14 (Crummy 2010, figs. 4 and 5; both currently on display in the Colchester Castle Museum). In the former, the bear generally exhibits more incised markings than the other examples, but at the neck and behind the head are a series of transverse grooves some of which intersect diagonally. The latter is much clearer and has five intersecting incisions.The Bootham bear, now in the Sheffield Museum, is the more prominent of all and depicts four intersecting incisions at both the back/shoulder and the rump.

On the presumption that the bears depicted were modelled on the Eurasian Brown Bear (Ursa arctos arctos), we can see that they are generally good depictions of these creatures and, as far as this particular thought goes, they do depict the strong muscle hump behind the head which is incised on the three examples above. Perhaps the obvious interpretation of these intersecting incised lines is that they depict fur tufts? If I had to wholly oppose this argument it may go down the lines of ‘then why only this space? why not everywhere?’. The bear from CF166, crouching down is generally more incised that the others but most prominently so on the apex of the back. Others are completely smooth and all appear to have been at least partially polished. I don’t think it’s useful to entirely discount this option, as it is one possible interpretation, but an alternative certainly sprung to my mind.

Thus I think it is worth at least suggesting that the depiction of these eight or ten pointed line groups bear strong resemblances to the depiction of stars on other Roman small finds.

YORYM_1972_22_6168 (2)

FIGURE 4: Intaglio depicting stars and crescent moon from the Church Street sewer assemblage, York. In the Yorkshire Museum (YORYM : 1972.22.6168) [CC BY SA 4.0].

Indeed stars are particularly prevalent on specific class of gemstone used for magical purposes and are a a prominent feature of the supernatural iconography on these objects. To see the variety of this feature on magical gems follow this link to the catalogue of the Campbell Bonner Magical Gems Database results for ‘Stars’. They are used as decorative elements on other items of jewellery, such as this metal finger ring (PAS: FAKL-030593). Most prominently they feature in several coin issues, particularly from the 4th Century (e.g. PAS: DOR-B97E44)

The implications of a bear with a star on its back is particularly relevant if we consider the ancient myth in which one of Artemis’ handmaidens, Callisto is transformed into a bear (by Artemis or Hera) after a fling with Zeus which bore her a son – Arcas. Later in the myth the adult Arcas nearly shoots his mother (still a bear) whilst out hunting but both are then changed into stars by Zeus to prevent a family tragedy (Stapleton 1978, 50). Callisto is then the constellation Ursa major and Arcas Ursa minor.

A consideration of this myth opens the speculative door both for thematic links between stars and bears explicitly, but also for parent-child relationships and particularly for the protection of parents and children. Crummy considered the bears as one object type in a broad toolkit used for the protection of infants in the graves in later Roman Britain – they were chthonic objects, placed in the graves of deceased children. Clearly these situations were highly emotively charged, but Crummy’s evidence points to the careful consideration of the most suitable object or (more likely) objects for these situations. Thus the bears may represent part of an explicit link to the loss of a parent-child relationship.

The Greek Magical Papyri (Betz 1992) do not disappoint in continuing the links between magic, ritual practices, and bears: both bears and stars, and the constellation Ursa major were praised and invoked in numerous magical rituals:

  • PGM 1275-1322. “Bear charm which accomplishes everything: Forumula: I call upon you, the greatest power in heaven appointed by the lord gos to turn with a strong hand the holy pole, NIKAROPLEX.”…[continues]
  • PGM 1331-89. “Powerful spell of the bear which accomplishes everything: Take the fat of a black ass, the fat of a dappled she-goat, the fat of a black bull, and Ethipoian cumin, mix all together / and make an offering to the Bear, having as a phylactercy hairs from the same animals which you have plaited into a cord and are wearing in a diadem around you head”…[continues]
  • PGM 686-702 “Bear charm: Bear, Bear, you who rule the heaven, the stars, and the whole world; you who make the axis turn and control the whole cosmic system by force and compulsion;”… [continues]
  • PGM XII. 190-92 “Request for a dream oracle spoken to the Bear: Take olive oil [from] a clean… onto the left hand and say the [names. Then] smear yourself and go to sleep having your head towards thc east. IESOUS ANOUI…”
  • PGM 1-36 “[Rite concerning the Bear: Prepare] an earthen [censer, and] during the 6th hour of the night [offer to the Bear] moss of a savin [in it. Do it before] three days / [after you called on] the Bear nine times from a high roof.”…[continues].

The PGM are clearly referencing the constellation directly, but we may assume at least a passing awareness of the animal to given relevance to the name of the groups of stars in the night sky. These ritualistic elements of the PGM may have direct relevance to the use of Jet in Roman Britain. I have previously argued that certain Jet objects are explicitly and deliberately rubbed in order to produce an electrostatic effect and that this action is evidence of discreet magical practice (see Parker 2016). Several of the bears have certainly been rubbed extensively, perhaps as part of the same effect. It should be pointed out that extensive use-wear of a Jet object in this manner would take an extensive amount of time – rather more than the short lives of the infant burials in which they turn up. Perhaps this is indicative of an object buried with children but used by adults over many more years? Or something curated or used as an heirloom?

Whilst there are only these few scant examples of incised lines upon the backs of bears (3 of the 9 known) is certainly seems plausible that these forms of decorations owe as much to a knowledge and understanding of myth, ritual, and/or magic as they did to the anatomically correct depiction of a bear.



Allason-Jones, L. 1996. Roman Jet in the Yorkshire Museum. York, Yorkshire Museum.

Betz, H. D. 1992. The Greek Magical Papyri in Translation (2nd Edition). Chicago and London, Chicago University Press.

Crummy, N. 2010. ‘Bears and Coins: The Iconography of Protection in late Roman Infant Burial’, Britannia 41. 37-93.

Eckardt, H. 2014. Objects and Identities: Roman Britain and the North-western Provinces. Oxford, Oxford University Press.

Parker, A. 2016. ‘Staring at Death: the Jet Gorgoneia of Roman Britain’, in Hoss, S. and Whitmore, A. (eds) Small Finds and Ancient Social Practices in the North Western Provinces of the Roman Empire. Oxford, Oxbow.

Stapleton, M. 1978. A Dictionary of Greek and Roman Mythology. London, Book Club Associates.

Lucky users

Utere felix – “Good luck to the user”, alternatively translated as “Use, happily” is a simple phrase included on numerous forms of portable object in Roman Britain. It is innocuous, but standardised in its form throughout the material culture on which it appears. It may be abbreviated to UF, but it always stands for the same, single invocation. Variations on this in Greek may be found elsewhere in the Roman Empire.


Base silver finger ring inscribed with Utere Felix. Gussage St. Michael, Dorset.
PAS: DOR-8F5E8E. Image (C)Portable Antiquities Scheme [CC By attribution].

The phrase is close to the modern, Anglophone idea of wishing ‘good luck’ – in modern Britain this is a social nicety, a spoken method of conveying the hope for a positive outcome to oneself or another but one which, if deconstructed, still intends to deliver some sort of beneficial outcome to the recipient. Culturally, in modern Britain, there is a material iconography of luck – horseshoes, four-leafed clovers, and leprechauns feature strongly in this shared understanding of ‘luckiness’. These images are born out of folkloric customs in the preceding centuries and have probably taken on new meaning in this time, but are prevalent today nonetheless. It is probably true also to suggest that there was a material iconography of luck in the Roman world too, though it is much more difficult to access.

It is useful to discuss what ‘luck’ actually is. ‘Luck’ is a concept closely allied with chance, probability, and accident. Darke and Freedman (1997, 488) suggested that there are two main viewpoints on luck (in modern populations): that it is a random and uncontrollable force from which future events cannot be predicted and from which once holds a rational belief about the causal properties of luck, or that it is something which can be embodied in people or objects and remain somewhat stable over time. In attempting to construct a measurable scale of belief in luck they were required to define what they meant by ‘belief in luck’: “Belief in good luck was defined as the view that luck is a somewhat stable characteristic that consistently favours some people but not others and is especially likely to favour oneself (ibid 490).

Van den Hoek, Feissel, and Herrmann (2015) suggest that luck is closely linked to magic in the ancient world because an immaterial power is invoked: “The immaterial force can seem to enter the object [via the text], and thereby becomes a vehicle that acts upon the user. The object becomes personified as an ally who pronounces more-or-less hidden messages of encouragement”. The same sort of functionality may also be true of the icons we describe as ‘apotropaic’ or as serving an amuletic function. The difference is that with messages of good luck, there is no clearly direct reason for needing or using the object – they offer a very generalised sort of benefit to the user.

With Utere felix it is ambiguous whether it is the object itself, the creator of the text upon it, the physical presence of the text itself, or some other exterior force which benevolently bestows good fortune on its user. Interestingly the phrase does not denote ownership – it was not just only the owner that necessarily benefits, but any given user of the object. In this sense the text has an explicitly generalised efficacy. Perhaps the only barrier to using such an object was the ability to read or, at least, to understand the lettering in a meaningful way.

1STY0009 (1)

Copper alloy, enamelled pan with enamelled Utere Felix on the handle. Eastrington, East Riding of Yorkshire. PAS: YORYM-20B68C
Image (C)Portable Antiquities Scheme [CC By attribution].


To date I have catalogued thirty-three such Utere felix objects from Roman Britain: Finger rings (8, including one intaglio), brooches (6), tanks (5), handles (2), spoons (2), strap fitting (1), ceramic vessel (1), bone plaque (1), wooden stake (1). It is evident that at least twenty of these objects are designed for personal adornment. The belt and strap fittings, and the brooches are also clearly designed to fulfil a weight bearing function; they are devices used to hold or affix. It is perhaps an issue of translation and modern semantics whether one can ‘use’ a finger ring simply by wearing it. If its use was amuletic by virtue of the UF text included on them this may be a somewhat circular argument.

It is certainly interesting that many of the object types listed here require physical manipulation to fulfil their utilitarian purpose: brooches must be clasped, patera and spoon handles held, belts clasped etc. and by doing so there was a very physical connection with the text. Not only was it worn, overtly, in these places but it was interacted with by the user to get it into that position in the first place. Perhaps this link between the text and the real world ‘user’ was important?

A differing logic may apply to the lead tanks, the so-called ‘baptismal fonts’ of the fourth century, as the ‘user’ in this sense was someone immersing themselves within its liquid contents; they are also strongly connected with Christian iconography on the exterior of the vessels. The UF phrase predates the rise of the Christian faith in Britain by at least two centuries and, if the semantic argument present above is valid it was a functionally Pagan literary device, so its amalgamation for this purpose is of interest.

The varied nature of the material objects that held the phrase is a point of interest in itself as it shows that the phrase was not necessarily dependent upon specific material conditions to be installed onto something. UF may be a sort of magical panacea in the ancient world; an off-the-shelf, one size fits all sort of apotropaic device capable of being moulded to the needs or desires of the individual.

Perhaps the relatively small numbers of UF devices is somewhat mitigate by the much larger numbers of depictions of Fortuna and Bonus Eventus in Roman Britain – the faces of luck. Of the 2,012 intaglios researched by Ian Marshman in his recently published PhD he found that Bonus Eventus was the most commonly depicted motif in Roman Britain (122 examples, 6%) and Fortuna also featured prominently (75 examples, 3.7%) (Marshman 2015, 140-141, nos. 17.00-17.122, 32.00-32.75).


Darke, P. R. and Freedman, J. L. 1997. ‘The Belief in Good Luck Scale’, Journal of Research in Personality 31. 486-511.

Marshman, I. 2015. ‘Making Your Mark in Britannia: An investigation into the use of signet Rings and Intaglios in Roman Britain’. PhD thesis, University of Leicester. [Available http://hdl.handle.net/2381/37527]

Van den Hoek, A., Feissel, D. and Hermann Jr., J. J. 2015. ‘More Lucky Wearers: The Magic of Portable Inscriptions’, in Boschung, D. and Bremmer, J. N. (eds) 2015. The Materiality of Magic (Morphomata 20). Paderborn, Wilhelm Fink. 309-356.


Material Approaches to Roman Magic: A brief reflection.

On this grey spring day, a new book is blinking in the half-light and taking its first tentative steps into the world of academia. This is day for celebration, as an edited volume organised by myself and my co-conspirator Stuart McKie (OU PhD graduate, now lecturer at Manchester University) is released.

Material Approaches to Roman Magic: Occult Objects and Supernatural Substances is an edited volume consisting of ten standalone papers by a mixture of established academics, early career researchers, PhD students, and museum professionals, and weighs in at just over 100,000 words. I thought that now seems to be an ideal time to take a moment to reflect on the process, the finished product, and the experience. There is an official release party in Edinburgh tonight, at the conference, which neither of us are able to attend. Thankfully there will be contributors present to bask in the glory of their newly published work. Writing this blog is how I will be celebrating.

I’d worked as an editor before, but as solo editor, chief people wrangler, reviewer, and type-setter for the British Archaeological Report Ad Vallum: Papers on the Roman Army and Frontiers in Celebration of Dr Brian Dobson (2017). My main memory of that process was that it was a long, lonely one. That, and type-setting 16 papers into Microsoft Word complete with page numbers, headers etc. is a 21st century level of Hell. Material Approaches, affectionately known as the ‘TRAGIC’ project behind the scenes (TRAC + Magic = ….), was a much more positive experience. There are two main reasons for this: Oxbow type-set everything; I had a co-editor to work with.

The inception for this volume was in the 2015 TRAC panel “Charmed, I’m sure: Roman Magic – Old theory, new approaches”. The six original papers included in that session were:

  • Stuart McKie: Distraught, drained, devoured, or damned? The importance of individual creativity in Roman cursing.
  • Glynn Davis: Excessively charged amulets? Contextualising Roman London’s ‘Magical’ Jet and Amber
  • Alissa Whitmore: Fascinating Fascina – Revisiting Roman Phallic Pendants
  • Alessandro Quercia & Melania Cazzuolo – Fear of the dead?Deviant’ burials in the Roman Northern Italy.
  • Idit Sagiv: Victory of good over evil? Apotropaic animal images on Roman engraved gems
  • Adam Parker: Making Magic Work

From this original six, Stuart’s paper on cursing and Allessandro and Melania paper on Deviant burials both made it into the 2016 publication of the 2015 conference proceedings where they sit next to each other. I don’t remember how it happened, but Stuart was quickly on board for co-editor duties, providing a different contribution inspired by his then almost-finished PhD on the topic. Idit’s paper was written up directly for this volume I’m glad to say, and Glynn took an element of his paper and broadened it out – his complete catalogue of the amber from London is forthcoming in the regional journal. Alissa’s subject is also retained in the final volume, though the title and some of the content was used for a paper she published in a 2017 edited volume on dress in antiquity. So far, so good then for producing academic impact from a conference session

The elephant in the room is my own contribution. Originally I had intended to try and bolt some theory together and promote a newer, contextualised approach to the material culture. Whether it worked on the day is for others to judge, but on paper it just looked like I’d bitten off more than I could chew. It took me a few months of occasionally messing around with it to realise that it simply would not work as a standalone paper and certainly not for the volume we were organising, with its material-led approaches. It was a genuine relief to park a paper that I’d found hard to write and move onto what (in my opinion) is what I’m good at – writing about objects. Thankfully, some of what I’d produced was re-worked by Dr. McKie into the introduction, for which he also draws on his own PhD work. The content I’d tried to write makes a lot more sense at the beginning than where I’d originally envisaged it as a paradigm-shifting, world-burning paper as it could never have been either of those things. The choice to write, instead about tintinnabula was drawn from my recent blog post and the experiences of writing some underpinning work on the materia magica of Roman Britain for my PhD research. They are fascinating things and, apparently, wildly understudied as a group of objects.

I’m still not 100% satisfied with my own paper in this volume, probably because it doesn’t really answer any of the questions I’d raised (but nor did it intend to!). It is probably a whole separate research project to fully investigate this topic. There are, of course, many elements of this book which I am very, very proud of. Looking at the list of contributors, the majority of those involved are not the usual big-hitters of Roman material culture/religion/magic studies, though Dasen and Wilburn can certainly be classed as such. Four of the contributors were PhD students when the process started and when they wrote their papers – I hope this volume will be helpful to the careers of these folks as they join the other ECRs from the contents page; having a PhD isn’t a pre-requisite to academic publication though it may often look that way from the outside of the subject or the outset of a research project. The authors are from different backgrounds professionally as well as personally: at least five nationalities are represented here, with a 6:4 male-female gender split. Four of us work also work outside of academia, in the museums & heritage sector.

I’m very proud of the fact that this project arose when I was an independent researcher, just someone interested in the subject. Ok I was trying to get a PhD place at the time (and now have one), but the volume was born out of an interest in the subject, pure and simple, and fuelled exponentially through the inclusion of other interested and interesting individuals. I have a hazy memory of the evening now, but remember sitting in a Leicester pub with various members of the panel drinking for hours and hours during the TRAC party the evening after the session. At that point we were actively reclaiming the “loony fringe” title that Ralph Merrifield has coined for us in the 1980s – I distinctly remember talking about that very phrase. I’m glad that it now also features in the introduction to the published volume.

Of course there were stressful moments and a few late nights of proof reading on a work-night but the darkest cloud which hung over this project, for me, was having to take the difficult decision to remove a contributor from the process. The deadlines were somewhat idealised, but Stuart and I were very accommodating to extensions as long as they did not impact the long-term results; we ended up with a staggered system of papers in, read, edited, changed, returned etc and a simple colour-coded excel spreadsheet to keep track of it all. We reached a point in the process that, despite the constant promises of a contributor to submit their paper, it was evident they were too unreliable to be part of the process and would have been many months behind the other contributors. The email I wrote explaining our situation and to, effectively, boot-out someone who may have jeopardised this project was a very difficult thing to do. I wrote it twice, edited it carefully for the correct tone and then sent a draft to the co-editor and the series editor. The author in question wasn’t happy. To paraphrase them, they returned an email saying that no work on Roman magic would be complete without a contribution on their specific subject. I did not reply, much as I’d have enjoyed angrily hammering the keys, to tell them that I agreed and that was, in fact, the point. Handily, at the same time one of the other contributors (TD) and I had organised a panel on Medicine/Magic for the 2017 TRAC conference. Having seen Nicky’s paper in this panel, we agreed to approach him for a last-minute inclusion into the project. Thankfully, he agreed and worked like an absolute Trojan to get a paper to us in a short window and then to respond to initial comments from the editors within an even shorter window to keep the book on time. The resulting volume is all the stronger for this paper.

This forced removal of a contributor came shortly after one other author withdrew from the process after talking to a PhD supervisor, so there was a point in the process when we were down to 8 papers in the book. The epilogue/round-up by Dasen was a valuable contribution that also came later in the process, partly as a result of these changes early in 2017, but also from the realisation that a collative, ‘finishing’ paper was needed for this volume to make sense as a whole. I’m glad to have had the opportunity to work with the contributors that we did, though I still have not personally met three of them in the real world. It is my fervent hope to work with many of them again on other projects.

There are a lot of transferable skills inherent in editing a book like this. Time management and team-working are the big take-homes, but personal discipline in reading and re-reading when it matters are important, as was maintaining a flexible approach to getting the work done. As no-one is paying any of us to do this, it is a feather in everyone’s caps.

I hope that the journal reviewers are kind to us, but whatever its legacy I’m pleased to have been able to help create a platform for this volume and to push a research agenda I am very interested in.

My Material Millenium

Today was a huge milestone in my PhD research: the inclusion of the 1,000th object in my database recording the material culture of magic in Roman Britain. This seems like a good place to stop, take stock, and look at some metrics of what I’ve been working on so far. If reaching a milestone like this isn’t an excuse to make some gratuitous pie-charts in Excel then I don’t know what is.

I’m collating a diverse range of objects, currently represented by 43 distinct classifications of objects types. Inevitably this total will rise as the research continues, but to date the objects with magical associations I have described so far are: Amulet Case, Antefix, Bead, Beaker, Bell, Belt Fitting, Bowl, Bracelet, Brooch, Button and Loop Fastener, Carving, Cymbal, Disc, Earring, Egg-shaped object, Figurine, Fitting, Fossil, Handle, Intaglio, Knife, Lamella, Lamp, Linchpin, Mount, Other, Pendant, Pin, Plaque, Rattle, Ring, Rod, Roundel, Seal Box, Spoon, Stake, Stamp, Strap Fitting, Tank, Tooth, Vessel, Wall Plaster, Weight. It is a pre-requisite for the inclusion criteria that a sensible case can be made for a ‘magical’ function for every specific object in the database.

There are nuances within this classifications, such as an Antler Roundel depicting a phallic symbol; which the temptation would be to classify this as a ‘Roundel’, these objects are almost universally pierced for suspension and show signs of use-wear on the suspension loops. Thus such things are, functionally, ‘pendants’ in this classification and roundels are instead large, rounded discs of a similar type but without the same suspension criteria. In the same vein, a pierced tooth is also a pendant, because it was suspended – the classification ‘tooth’s is for worked teeth with no evidence for suspension/function. Classifications are important for this sort of data set, with over a thousand objects used in comparison with each other for the purposes of discussing temporal change, typological evolution (maybe), context, and function how I choose to classify them will certainly affect how they are analysed once the data gathering period is complete.


FIGURE 1: An antler roundel, suspended as a pendant from Malton, North Yorkshire.
In the collection of Malton Museum.

I’ve hidden the raw numbers, as this post is an opportunity to provide interim highlights rather than definite totals, but the chart shows the diverse nature of the material culture of magic in Roman Britain thus far: Pendants, Mounts, and Bells representing the largest groups; certainly there is a strong evidential base for connecting magical practices to things worn or used directly by people.

There are caveats here: at least 100 additional bells to be included in this database, so that segment will increase imminently; also, there are no curse-tablets yet included which will number over 100 easily. Some types are represented by a single find, such as a wooden stake from Swan Lane, London inscribed with UTERE FELIX and an incredible glass bowl from Wint Hill, Somerset now in the Ashmolean Museum.

Object Types

The objects are also categorised into one of 15 larger groupings related to the form of the object type. These are: Animal Remains; Bulla; Classical Deity; Epigraphic Object; Erotic Scene; Evil Eye; Gnostic Deity; Human Figural; Other; Other Deity; Lunula; Noise-making Object; Phallic Object; Vulvate Object; Zoomorphic Object. The relative proportions of this highlights the current dominance of phallic objects (30% of records) in the database. The additions of the bells and curses mentioned above will reduce this figure somewhat. This chart goes some way to highlight the importance of both image and text in the archaeology of magic but, it should be pointed out, it does fundamentally undervalue the role of ephemeral ritual practices such as the spoken word, physical gestures, or use of organic (particularly botanical) components in the available magical toolkit.

Object Classifications


This information has so far been gathered from online databases (e.g. the PAS), excavation reports, unpublished grey literature reports, journal articles, various corpora, correspondence with museums, gallery visits (as a visitor), and archival visits (as a researcher to a museum with access behind-the-scenes): it is thus as comprehensive as I am capable of making it, but there is much yet to do.  Data gathering will continue throughout 2018 with visits to numerous museums and archives in the pipeline.

The Archaeology of (Roman) Magic Glossary

For my own diabolical needs, here be another inexhaustive list of terms defined by me – this time concerning the jargon association with Roman magic. Again, organic and added to over time.

Amulet – An object designed to produce an apotropaic effect.

Apotropaic – possessed of a quality that either prevents negative supernatural effects or promotes positive supernatural effects.

Charakteres – lit. ‘characters’ – non-literary symbols (and not explicit iconography) included on spells.

Defixiones – more correctly, curse-tablets. Usually lead sheets inscribed with text intended to cause supernatural harm. May be rolled, pierced, deposited in a ‘ritual’ space etc. From the Latin defigere “to fix down”

Lamella – Anachronistic(?) Latin word describing a thin metal sheet inscribed in text. Usually gold, silver, or bronze. Contextual differentiation from defixiones.

Magical gem – a specific type of intaglio comprising a gemstone engraved with images of deities/supernatural beings, apotropaic images, and text.

Materia magica – Anachronistic Latin phrase to describe an undefined group of objects or materials which may themselves be magical in nature, or be ingredients in magical practice and/or rituals. lit. ‘magical materials’

Materia medica – Latin phrase to describe an undefined group of objects or materials which may themselves be medicinal in nature, or be ingredients in medicinal practice and/or ritual. lit. ‘medical materials’

Materiality The physical, material quality of things and the reactions and relationships that humans (or other agents) have to these.

Ousia (ουσίά) – lit. ‘substance’. Something incorporated as materia in a ritual. Contemporary use often suggests an organic nature.

Phylactery – A text intending to produce an apotropaic effect. Sometimes synonymous with lamella. From the Greek phylaktêrion (verb: phylassô) “to guard, defend”.

Poppet – Anthropomorphic figure associated with magical rituals, often directly with defixiones. May be described, in accurately, as ‘Voodoo doll’.

Spell – Combination of words spoken or written as part of a magical ritual. May be used in combination with other materia magica.

Vox magica – lit. ‘supernatural names’ – often nonsensical or otherwise unidentifiable words or phrases included in a spell for magical means.


A very useful glossary of named characters from the Greek Magical Papyri (who may appear in other spells, phylacteries etc.) can be found at the end of Betz, H.D. 1992. The Greek Magical Papyri in Translation (2nd Edition.) Available [here].


My first archaeological theory glossary

As part of my research I’ve gone back to basics with archaeological theory and am reading summaries of the whole shebang. The thing I’ve always struggled with is the sheer weight of jargon that accompanies theory. This glossary is an evolving, dynamic list of the topics, subjects, and key words that I’ve re-encountered recently produced here for my own diabolical needs. As ever, it’s primarily for my own uses but if it serves to help out anyone else, hooray. All definitions are my own.

Agency – the ability to act and produce an effect in the world, intentional or not.

Biography (object) – the sequence of events or processes which have occurred to a single object throughout its physical existence and the way(s) in which it may have been used.

Cognitive archaeology – Archaeological approach focussing on how people thought, viewed through organisations and ideologies.

Cultural history – 19th and 20th Century approach associating specific people in places as ‘cultures’ and considering their interactions and development.

Dialectics – two different perspectives/points of view in discussion or effecting change on each other.

Dualisms – Pervasive idea dividing a specific perspective between two distinct choices, e.g. male/female, old/young, left/right, rich/poor, living/dead etc.

Emic – from the viewpoint of a contemporary group.

Etic – from outside the viewpoint of a contemporary group discussing that group.

Materiality – The physical, material quality of things and the reactions and relationships that humans (or other agents) have to these.

Marxist theory – archaeology from the perspective of Marxism.

New Archaeology – The ‘paradigm shift’ following Cultural Archaeology incorporating the development of scientific approaches in the 1980s and their focus on applying hard-sciences into archaeology. Emphasis on systems, structures, and effects.

Personhood – the subjective qualities making up a person

Phenomenology – theory surrounding the necessity of ‘Being-in-the-world’. Considers people, places, landscapes, objects etc. ass context specific and difficult to address solely through their scientific measurement.

Post-processusal archaeology – The ‘paradigm shift’ following ‘new archaeology’ focussing on the dynamic role of objects and individuals within archaeology rather than processes by which things happened.

Potentialities – The ability for something to change or an inherent quality allowing for development

Practice (theory) – agents and structures working on each in other in the real world, effecting change.

Queer theory – destructuralist sociological approach questioning past assumptions of heternormativity.

Romanisation – the theory surrounding the adoption and/or interpretation of Roman ‘culture’ by peoples/societies/groups which came into contact with it.

Semiotics – the relationship between signs and meanings

Structuration – theory surrounding the relationship between structures which affect, influence or limit the behaviour of an agent, whether physical, behavioural, cultural etc.


For more extensive or complete glossaries see the following texts:

Hodder, Ian; Hutson, Scott (2003). Reading the Past: Current Approaches to Interpretation in Archaeology (third edition). New York: Cambridge University Press.

Harris, O. J. T. and Cippola, C. 2017. Archaeological Theory in the New Millennium: Introducing Current Perspectives. Routledge.

Or, for free, the Wikipedia page Archaeological Theory ) is a good start alongside all the pages flagged/categorised as such.

Artefact in Focus: The Thumb’s Up Linchpin

I moved from York to North Lincolnshire in 2016 so my other half and I could set up a wee little house together. As I still spend a lot of time working in York I haven’t really engaged in any great amount with the local heritage of my new county. There is the wonderful Hull and East Riding Museum on the other side of the Humber with its reconstructed Roman street complete with graffiti (“Romani Ite Domum”) and the Winterton villa a few miles west of here but without standing remains. Thus I was particularly entertained when, during the course of data gathering that I discovered in the North Lincolnshire Museum a rather wonderful thing pertinent to my investigation into the material culture of magic in Roman Britain from the small village of Wootton (NGR: TA 087 160). As I’m currently sat in Wootton this came as something of a pleasant surprise.

The item in question was discovered in typically Lincolnshire-ian form – in a potato field by a farm worker, in 1987. The object is a linch pin; a tapering iron shank used to keep a moving wheel attached to its axle. Rather unlike the vast majority of linch pins from Roman Britain, which are iron bars with spatulate or curving heads without decoration or embellishment, this fine example includes a large copper alloy casing in a curving, lunate form capped by a realistic, cast depiction of a human thumb, shown in full 3D. Moulded scalloping radiating from the centre to the edges, gives the cover depth in its decoration. A suspension loop hidden behind the thumb places it squarely into the existing typology of such things developed by Manning (1985, 74) for the diverse collection in the British Museum. It is thus of Manning type 1c: a linch pin with crescentic head with a peg-loop inserted into the head.

Figure 1: The iron linch pin with decorative, copper alloy mouldings from Wootton, North Lincolnshire. Terrible Images by the Author. 

The discovery of this pin has not gone without notice. The correspondence surrounding the discovery between Kevin Leahy at the museum as various other specialists in the 1980s is extensive and recorded in the linch pin’s object history file at the museum. Leahy showcased the pin at a meeting of the Society of Antiquaries of London and subsequently published the find with Martin Henig in the Society’s journal (Leahy and Henig 1988). It is now part of the permanent Roman galleries in the North Lincs museum.

Helpful though their article is, there remains an opportunity to discuss the embodied meaning of this figural symbol and its relationship to magical practice. The ritual associations with thumbs are really quite strong in the Roman world. The speaker of a spell in the in the Greek Magical Papyri (PGM 36.161-77) was instructed to hold their thumbs whilst a magical spell was spoken seven times – ultimately aiming to restrain anger and promote successes. Conversely, the effort of intertwining fingers or legs in specific situations was believed, as least as far as Pliny was concerned (NH, 28.17) to represent a form of ‘dark’ magic (for an extensive discussion on the binding of human bodies see McKie 2018).

Artefactually, whole hands were depicted on an unusual group of objects, most often hairpins, depicting a hand holding a spherical object between forefinger and thumb (Eckardt 2014, 158-167) though the explicit meaning of this image was certainly nuanced. The thumb was crossed beneath the forefinger in the manus fica (‘fig sign’) good luck symbol and often depicted making this gesture on objects which also depict phalli as one half of a super-strength apotropaic image. The thumb was raised with finger as part of oath-taking, and in this form is depicted surrounded by cult images/religious and ritual symbol on so-called Hands of Sabazios throughout the Roman Empire (Eckardt 2014, 166).

Suffice to say that there are numerous avenues we could wander down in search of functional comparanda. We are, however, somewhat limited by the uniqueness of the Wootton linch pin. It remains the only one of its type known to archaeology and, within that broader category of ‘depictions of human hands on objects’ it is within the relatively rare subcategory of ‘single thumbs’. As a decorative theme on objects, thumbs are rare things. The nearest form-based comparable I could find for this brief overview is a bone rod (or very large hair pin…) from Gloucestershire and now in the British Museum. More prosaically, a set of four ornate linch pins from Sandy, Bedfordshire, also in the BM is helpful is demonstrating the existence of such decorative things in Roman Britain to us non-ferrous specialists.

For me, the main point of interest in this object, other than its proximity to my house, is the original spatial significance of this image. The thumb has been clearly selected for use in a very specific environment and it points towards the axle and the road, not the wheel or the vehicle. Furthermore, did it spin with the wheel or axle or remain static? I simply don’t know enough about Roman transport engineering to quickly find the answer to this question. Assuming (and this is a big assumption at this point) an apotropaic function for the thumb, it may have been designed to add supernatural protection to the physical protection of the iron pin in keeping the wheel on place and aligned true. It seems plausible, at least to this student of Roman magical objects, that the thumb was taking up the mantle of ‘lightning conductor’ for bad luck to protect the wheel and, by extension, the vehicle, and any cargo or persons upon it.

Wheeled carts came in numerous forms and the literary differences between the different shapes and functions of these vehicles is a quagmire. Two-wheeled vehicles include: carpentum (covered), birota (two-horsed, for hire), plasutrum (the principal wagon). Four wheeled vehicles include: pilentum (state carriage with four wheels used in religious processions), currus triumphalis (triumphal chariot), carruca (travelling carriage, which may include beds), reda (gallic, 2 or 4 horses). Perhaps there is one or another of these vehicle types which was more appropriate or inappropriate to house a thumb-shaped linch pin? Perhaps the copper alloy exterior was a symbol of higher status – adding that extra bright, brassy, bling to a wheel that didn’t need it to function?

In all cases there is a clear presumption that the linch pin would be matched with an identical fellow on its opposite number. After all thumbs, in their normal anatomical places on people, come in pairs – one left and one right. Without comparisons it is impossible to argue, but spearing as a pair seems a relatively logical thing to do when disembodying a body part. In the vast majority of phallic or vulvate images (refs available on request…), themselves often serving an apotropaic function, these are as individuals and appear to do be depicted as in was fairly true to the originals.

Like most thing that I blog about, I certainly haven’t got any answers for this one (none of the big stuff of how, when, or why) but at least some of the questions might be interesting rabbit-holes to disappear off into in the future. If nothing else, do take note of the unusual and interesting Roman thing from Wootton, North Lincs as there doesn’t seem to be much else.

The pin is accessioned to the North Lincolnshire Museum, Scunthorpe, as SCUNM: 1988.001.001 (WOTAA1). Access to the object was kindly provided by Rose Nicholson, Collections Manager, in November 2017.



Eckardt, H. 2014. Objects and Identities: Roman Britain and North-Western Provinces. Oxford, Oxford University Press.

Leahy, K. and Henig, M. ‘Exhibitions at Ballots. 2: A Romano-British linch pin from Wootton, South Humberside’, Antiquaries Journal 319-321    

Manning, W. H. 1985. Catalogue of the Romano-British Iron Tools, Fittings, and Weapons in the British Museum. London, British Museum.

McKie, S. 2018. ‘The Legs, Hands, Head and Arms Race: The Human Body as a Magical Weapon in the Roman World’, in Parker, A. and McKie, S. (eds) Material Approaches to Roman Magic: Occult Objects and Supernatural Substances (Themes in Theoretical Roman Archaeology 2). Oxford, Oxbow.

Musings on a phallic tomato

As I write today, one of my main interests in Roman material culture is the depiction of sexual imagery. Given the dataset available this, predominantly, means that I spent a lot of time looking at phalluses. Vulvate imagery does, of course, feature in Roman artefactual assemblages, but when it comes to images, figurines, pendants, mosaics, and carvings it was the boy parts which get all the attention. I am in the process of creating a database of all magical / amuletic things from Roman Britain as part of my PhD and this includes all objects which depict male or female genitalia in some form. The data gathering remains in progress, but as an indicator (rather than any hard-and-fast rule) my current database includes phallic objects as the largest single class of objects within the framework of my research.


My home-grown, ‘phallic’ tomato. Here immortalised in blog form.

That there was a lot of it around is, I should think, a fair comment to make about the presence of phallic imagery in the Roman world but this blog is not about phallic imagery, per se – it is about ephemerality. The catalyst for joining these two issues together was, in all honesty, the tomato plant growing on the windowsill next to my desk. One of its fruits was an unusual shape – with a large, tapering projection (a secondary tomatoey growth) extending from its side. It was an entirely natural product and ended its brief sojourn as a research tool on the side of the cheesy omelette that I’d made for lunch. One could certainly be forgiven for finding the form of the tomato somewhat phallic. I did; to me it looked very similar to this copper alloy pendant from Kent. Now this observation is entirely subjective and anthropomorphises the tomato in a rather unnatural way, but it did get me thinking – would this sort of weird, pseudo-human appendage have been regarded in the same way in the 2nd Century? Thanks to the ephemeral nature of such things available to the modern archaeologist I am choosing to speculate on the subject. Wildly. (Editorial note: I’m just writing and speculating in this blog, no references – just thoughts).

Tomato plants are native to western South America and Central America so aren’t directly comparable, but the same process could occur naturally in native European fruits, vegetables, plants etc. I’m quite aware that my opinion of what constitutes an unusual or acceptable shape for a fruit or vegetable is entirely effected by the 21st Century western, capitalist world in which I live and have been brought up. This world, perhaps bizarrely, favours standardisation and grading of its foodstuffs. Thanks to my vegetable patch I’m not ignorant to the artificial nature of supermarket greenery. The resurgence of the ‘wonky vegaspect of supermarket sales does suggest that I am at least a step removed from the natural and organic shapes of such things, but even within the natural range of shapes this tomato is quite unusual.

I find the idea tantalising that an association between the image of an apotropaic device and a natural product could have regarded as magical, supernatural, apotropaic or however else you wish to classify it. Could it have been selected above others explicitly for its unconformity, for being something beyond the common variance of nature? Could it have been curated, stored, or prepared in a different way? The issue of ephemerality comes into play at this point; whilst environmental remains are present and identifiable in the archaeological record we are (generally speaking) not privy to a fully representative corpus of the shapes, sizes, and colours of whole plants that may survive. These images, filtered through the artistic lens of painters or mosaicists, may have be idealised rather than accurately representing the grubby, bumpy, stringing, or oddly shaped fruits of the Roman world.

Phalli themselves were used as apotropaic devices to protect against the Evil Eye, bad luck, and other supernatural nasties and were worn about the body or carved into building stones in order to achieve an area-of-effect efficacy. A strange and unusual fruit with a phallic element may have been suitable for internal protection, though its consumption, by an inversion of the same logic. The colour could also be of import. It is particularly true of stones (and gemstones) that colour could be related to function, hence green schist or steatite are dominant as the stones used for collyrium stamps (themselves used in the preparation of eye medicine), and that yellow gemstones are connected with stomach ache etc. Perhaps this link is true also of the food that could be eaten. Sore eyes = more greens? What if the fruit or vegetable encountered was a different colour to the familiar one? Perhaps a different variant traded from the other end of Empire or the effects of temperature, humidity, or genetics. Exoticness does not, necessarily have to relate explicitly to form or familiarity.

Humour is also frequently invoked as an important element in the perception of Roman (and modern!) phallic imagery, fending off Evil though by an application of the adage “laughter is the best medicine”, and could have had a part to play in the use of wonky and humour plantstuffs.


[Image from Scandinavian and the World Comic] 
(Thanks to Anthony Lee for sending this to me)

Within the world of Roman magic, ritual activity does often include combinations of mundane and exotic objects together; mixed up with some arcane knowledge, magical words, special images, repetitions, gestures etc. To my mind wonky veg fits the bill. There are few human activities which could affect the shape of the growth, short of selective cross-breeding on an industrial scale or growing within a specifically-shaped container (e.g. the modern demand for square melons) so for non-conformist shapes it is left to the vicissitudes of the natural world to throw up some mutant shapes on an ad hoc basis. This rarity could, potentially, have engaged human interest moreso than the familiar. Indeed, it is a fundamental constant in the Theory of Evolution that mutations and subtle changes may, ultimately, be beneficial to the continuation of a genetic line and in this case this is one microcosmic example of such a mutation.

It is certainly feasible that the weird and wonderful bounty of nature, phallic or not, was retained in the Roman world to show to other people or, perhaps, exotic forms, shapes or colours, of mundane plants were sought or desired because of intrigue relating to their unusual qualities. Malinowski called this idea “the coefficient of weirdness” and alluded that it is part of human nature to be curious and drawn to the unusual and non-conformist objects or practices when we compare them to those within our normal lives. I am guilty of the same for being so invested in my unusual tomato.

Could a phallic tomato, for the sake of argument, have been regarded as the supernatural equivalent of a copper alloy pendant or gold ring depicting a phallus in the Roman world? Clearly I can’t answer this question, but the ephemeral nature of the organic in this scenario places it in a unique position to be temporally or spatially significant in a way that the inorganics could not. This is an idea I was drawn to in an earlier discussion about the collection and use of Stag beetles  in magical/medicinal practice. The fleeting nature of the fruit offers an opportunity for it to be considered as a rare or exotic gift, born of nature itself rather than crafted by hand and thus connected to the season or the space in which it was found or to the person who grew, harvested, or found it in the first place. My tomato was phallic, but the same issues may be true of an apple with an (evil) eye on it, or a particularly vulvate lemon to give but two hypothetical examples.

Perhaps the vast majority even of these most unusual crops ended up on a plate eventually, seemingly devoid of supernatural content. I guess it depended upon the reactions of the individuals who came across them.

Food for thought.