In May on 2017 I blogged here about an object in focus: a gold lamella designed for protection during childbirth. In this edition I want to revisit the practice, but not from the perspective of the epigraphic texts which contained magical formulae but from the containers which may be designed to carry them. This was inspired by a chance opportunity this week to handle one of the gold examples in the Yorkshire Museum during my day-to-today curatorial shenanigans there.
To introduce the practice: ‘Lamella’ does not describe a function, but a shape – a thin, metal plate (Betz 1992, 336). There is a rather grand and incredibly useful catalogue of them published by Kotansky (1994). These are all small and very, very thin. I am aware of 9 gold examples from Roman Britain and six very similar examples in lead alloy (probably a different blog there – we’ll focus on gold). Of the amulet cases I know of, from Roman Britain, 4 are gold, 1 possible example is lead, and there is 1 other possible candidate.
Figure 1: One of Nine – a gold lamella, handily also from York. This example bears two lines of Greek text invoking Chnoubis and was designed to treat stomach complaints. You can see it was also originally rolled. Associated with the Railway Station cemetery site. In the Yorkshire Museum.
The recently discovered lamellae, reported through the Portable Antiquities Scheme, have been unrolled in order to read the text. The rolled lamellae are designed to be suspended in the so-called ‘amulet cases’ – hollow gold cylinders, sealed at both ends and suspended via two or three loops on one of the long edges. An example from Budapest, Hungary was found within one such gold, cylindrical capsule and another, from Krefeld-Gellup, Germany included a capsulate lamella associated with an inhumation burial (Kotansky 1994, no.21, fig. 23, and no. 4, fig. 5 respectively). The gold capsule case of a lamella from Vienna, Austria (Kotanksy 1994, no. 17), was also associated with an inhumation (in a sarcophagus) but contained an inner capsule of silver, itself containing another capsule of bronze which held a lamella in the innermost layer.
An amulet case is not, however, always an indicator that a lamella was originally present within it. Some examples did contain not a lamella at all but a powdery substance of presumed medical or magical relevance (at least three of the examples in the British Museum are reported to be filled with sulphur: BM: 1917, 0601.2984; BM: 1917, 0601.2981; BM: 1981, 0201.30, the latter from the Thetford Treasure, Norfolk).
Is this the same practice? Visually it would certainly have looked identical to an onlooker or, even, the user – a golden tube suspended on or about the body somewhere. Were the contents known to the individual? I think we have to presume that this is the case, especially given the bespoke (and sometimes) time-limited nature of the lamella text; think here of the lamella mentioned at the start, designed to be used only during children for a specifically named individual.
Unless either type, the rolled metal sheet or the powdered substance, were tightly packed into the tube they would be both liable to movement within the tube. Of the two, the sheet can be carefully folded or rolled to size for a better fit: the lamella from Sagvar (Hungary) was folded only once on its long axis and close to one side, suggesting it needed narrowing only slightly before it could be placed into a tube (Kotanksy 1994, 83).
Figure 2: The gold amulet case from the Church Street Sewer, York, 1972. Note the two suspension loops, single closed end, and single open (broken) end. In the Yorkshire Museum.
Looking more closely at the York example it does not exhibit any clear evidence for long-term use-wear on the suspension loops – an idea that, perhaps, chimes closely with the need for temporarily highlighted above. Whilst I am now unable to account for the taphonomic processes that this case has undergone, it does retain one of its closing end-pieces entirely in situ and the other is compressed into the tube itself. Unless this was undertaken in post-excavation (unlikely?) I can only accept that this is the condition in which it was discovered, in the Church Street Sewer in York in 1972. Now, the exposed end almost exactly bisects the diameter of the tub, making the possible removal of a rolled lamella more difficult unless it was a very poor fit for the case itself and/or a sheet was removed and the cap pushed back in.
Powdered materials in cylindrical cases could be tightly packed though it is unlikely that they could be completely compressed to prevent any sort of movement of the material. Perhaps the movement of the material was of relevance? The weight distribution of the pendant filled with powder may change from side to side. This may be an indication of why the suspension loops for the cylindrical cases are at either end rather than just in the middle – to prevent the tube from tipping over to one side. As far as the York example is concerned if it contained a powdery material this could very easily has entirely escaped the capsule if the end-piece was damaged in the way that it is.
In either instance there is an important question here – was it deliberate? It’s discovery in a sewer system, fed from both the Praetorium bath-house and the legionary’s bath-house, is easily explained away as an accidental loss, but this only masks the more important question of what someone was doing wearing a gold amulet case in a bath-house. The difference between casually losing a golden amulet and taking it apart and throwing it down a drain is pretty huge, especially if it was a thing that is fundamentally designed to improve the lot of an individual. Perhaps there was a situation in which deliberately destroying an amulet was an appropriate thing to do? How this related to its disposal in a bath-house we can only really speculate. Perhaps it’s contents had fulfilled their purpose, or their time-limited duration had run out? Perhaps it hadn’t worked at all? Perhaps the contents were designed to be kept until required (“break in case of emergency”?) and the whole was worn on or around the time when whatever ailment or problem was envisaged to rear it’s ugly head.
I’ve made an assumption here, that it is being worn (it could have easily been disposed once damaged elsewhere), but making this assumption leads to the suggestion that it was being worn in such a way that is conducive to being, otherwise, naked – i.e. somehow physically suspended from the body, via a chain or cord on the neck, arm, or tied into hair.
The gold is itself not a cheap thing to come by, requiring financial access to this precious material as well as a gold-worker to create the case. In this sense it might not an especially egalitarian practice, but if we can associate it with the well-paid legionary garrison or a member of the Legate’s household then we can at least accept that these groups are more likely to have access to this sort of material (especially the legate and his family). Interesting that the cases were largely unadorned with any additional decoration or inscription. One might imagine that apotropaic marking or symbols could be added to enhance its efficacy, but un-dramatic, smooth-surfaced gold seems to have been the required standard for these tubular cases.
One of the most intriguing questions I find here is – Is the amulet case purely designed to protect its content or did it serve an apotropaic function as well? It’s a question that I could certainly expend a lot of column-inches on, but suffice to say that there is a clear material link between gold objects within a gold contains or, a pale yellow powder in a gold-container. This colour link is contextual but, I would certainly argue, quite integral to their function. Thinking of the wider sensorium of the object, the colour is bright and simple and the gold would not tarnish and easily catch the light if worn over clothing. In the shadowy half-light of some of the rooms in a bath-house, it may have been particularly eye-catching. The amulet case is also incredibly light and even with the supposed contents mentioned above it would weigh no more than a few grams. That said, suspension loops could allow for suspension alongside other objects (glass beads spring to mind, but other apotropaic objects could also have worked). Perhaps they could be sewn onto textiles, or carried in a larger container?
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