Object in Focus: A Gold Lamella for Protection during Childbirth

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.

2007T001 - flattened

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.

“Remedy against certain maladies” – Thoughts on Stag Beetle Amulets

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).


Lucanus Cervus , Europe’s largest native beetle

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.

Stag Beetles

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. 


Visual Observations

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)

Tactile Observations

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.


PhD Year One

In the inevitable rush up towards the end of the year amid the terrifying and constantly noticeable feelings of time passing way too quickly, I thought I’d stop for a few minutes and type out a retrospective of my first year as a part-time PhD Student with the Open University. I can hardly believe that very nearly a full year has passed until I started on this adventure – a goal in itself which I had been working towards since 2010.

One year in. Whilst the imposter syndrome has not yet abated, I am at least very conscious now that I am part of a wide, engaging and life-affirming community of interesting and interested people. He’s probably sick of me pestering him by now but Stuart McKie who was, until recently, a fellow PhD student at the Open University researching a complimentary subject to my own (Roman Curse Tablets), is always owed thanks for putting me in touch with the right people back in 2014. We met at the Theoretical Roman Archaeology Conference 2014 held at the University of Reading. I was giving a paper in the panel Small Finds and Ancient Social Practices, organised by the wonderful team of Stef Hoss and Alissa Whitmore on Jet Gorgoneia in Roman Britain from a magical/materiality perspective. Stuart came and chatted to me afterwards. Later discussion eventually found out that we had both attended the University of Leicester and, although in different year groups, had lived in the same hall of residence in 2007-8. There is a fair chance that I had been serving the guy drinks in the halls bar, where I worked. Small world. A longer email discussion with Stuart then put me in the inbox of Ursula Rothe at the Open University, one of his supervisors, and through Ursula I started on the path to submitting a thesis proposal, being brutally interviewed for it, being rejected from funding, being accepted for other funding, and ultimately becoming enfolded into being a proper research student. So for catalysing this serious of fortunate events, the almost-Dr. McKie  deserves many thanks. Indeed, a short chat in Reading two years ago has led to Stuart and I collaborating on an edited volume, and we can now often be found at the same conference panels. Happily, Ursula is now also part of my supervisory triumvirate, completed by E-J Graham and Helen King.

Many lessons have been learned over the past year – explicitly, implicitly, holistically, sporadically and even theoretically. Perhaps the first lesson was that Milton Keynes, home of the OU campus, is bloody miles away. Nothing short of a three-hour each-way drive will get me on campus from t’North. Thankfully the reasonably priced coffee and fancy sandwiches in the massive OU café help to soothe a weary traveller’s woes. The distance involved has meant that I am largely unable to partake of the face-to-face development opportunities offered by the grad school and department and, for better or worse, that I will go out of my way not to commit to driving to campus.

Perhaps my greatest achievement of the last 12 months has been the periodic submission of two pieces of work totally 45,000 words. Smashing these personal wordcount PBs started on a bumpy track, with an initial 5,000-word submission on the theoretical nature of magic (in Jan/Feb 16) suffering death by a thousand supervisory comments. The only genuine existential panic I’ve felt over the last year came when I was reading the perfectly reasonable and appropriate comments by the supervisors on this first piece of work. Solution? Triple the length of the document and read everything. Whether any or all of this so-far discussed content will end up in the completed thesis is entirely academic (ha!) but it certainly feels like an achievement, if only in quantitative rather than qualitative terms.

Much desk-based writing has thus occurred so far with only period trips to fun and interesting places. My favourite of which was, without doubt, to the amazing Iris Project in Cheney School, Oxford. I was invited to give an hour introduction to magic to a group of year 8 students followed by an evening talk to a group of adults. One specific lesson was learned here – that the technical description of a ‘ring’ designed to be worn on a finger – ‘finger ring’ – is, when spoken quickly, hilarious to teenagers. First time I think the nice Oxford kids had a beardy Geordie bloke telling them to stop being mucky whist trying to hide his own vicarious giggling.  Between the two talks I got to wander into Oxford, buy some books and ponder life in the Pitt Rivers Museum. It was great fun. So much so that I’m going back to the school next year to chat about magical insects for the Festival of Ancient and Modern Science.

Over the past 12 months I’ve been rather pleased with how disciplined I’ve been with working from home for 2 days a week on my PhD. Very little distraction / video gaming has occurred in place of writing or reading. Had I embarked on this project 6 years ago, when I had originally wanted to as a fresh-faced MA graduate, I think the outcome may not have been the same. In retrospect, having a break from university and entering the working Heritage world for a few years has absolutely improved my project / life skills / writing / archaeological knowledge / caffeine tolerance to my betterment.

It’s not all rosy: the distant deadline of December 2022 remains, frankly, beyond my comprehension; I royally buggered up the finances for the first 6 months meaning I essentially lost the ability to claim from half my research grant for 2016; Part-time work in the professional world makes that time somewhat stressier, making it so tempting to take it easier on PhD days; It is very enjoyable to wind up my other half when we are both working from home.

The short path I’ve walked so far has been enlightening. I love collaborating and discussing with other researchers and students and my networking has got even better. I’ve recently been invited to write a paper for one edited volume, present a paper at the CA in a session, give an undergraduate lecture at Newcastle University, and take part in a MOOC on Ancient Health and Wellbeing. With all this going on, my data gathering to start, the edited volume with Stuart to drawn together, and organising another magic panel at TRAC 2017, next year promises to provide the full-on, exciting and engaging PhD life I signed up for. Hopefully the end justifies the means.

2016 was, in contradiction, both long and incredibly short. I’ve no doubt other people felt the same. Let’s finish up this brief retrospective with some benchmark statistics of the last 12 months by which I can compare my PhD life at the end of 2017!

  • 45,000 words written
  • 3 supervisors still all happily talking to each other and me
  • 2 Academic papers published
  • 4 new boxes of coffee pod things purchased
  • 1 magazine article published
  • 30 year 8 students giggling at Roman phallic charms
  • 1 video interview on my PhD topic
  • 24 hours spent driving to Milton Keynes
  • 3 times I’ve got lost on Milton Keynes’ roundabouts of doom
  • 2 days filming parts of a MOOC
  • 5 years to go

And a partridge in a pear tree.


A Cock and Bulla Story

A bulla (pl. bullae)  is a globular necklace worn by young boys. The alternative Latin meaning ‘bubble’ is a good indicator of its general bulbous shape. There is strong evidence for the bulla being used throughout the Republican period, particularly in Italy. Although it examples and depictions are known from the Imperial period it is sometimes argued to have declined in use in the 1st century AD (Cleland et al. 2007, 26; Croom 2000, 71). Its depiction on a third century AD sarcophagus in Györköny, Hungary suggest continued use. The bulla was hollow and may be made from gold, silver, bronze or leather; there is some evidence to suggest that the more expensive materials are explicitly associated with high status individuals. For example, a cremation burial from Aix-en-Provence (Péchoux 2010, 37, no. 19) from a family mausoleum included a porphyry cinerary urn, a gold bulla, two gold rings with emerald settings (pourvus d’émeraude), and an indeterminate amount of coinage – by anyone’s criteria that is an expensive burial in the north-western provinces! There is little more convincing evidence of an association between bulla and the elite than through its depiction on a statue of the infant Emperor Nero from the early 1st Century AD (in the Louvre, MR 337). The focus in modern literature is certainly on the examples in gold and silver – the high status examples.

Bullae are worn by boys from a very young age. Terracotta votives from 4th-1st Century BC Paestum show swaddled infants wearing bullae (Ammerman 2007). It has been suggested that the bulla was worn by boys until the end of puberty, between age 14 and 17, whereupon the pendant was offered to the family Lares and the young man officially entered adulthood (Cleland et al. 2007, 26; Dasen 2015, 195).


FIG 1: Sculpture from the tomb of a Roman boy, depicting him wearing a bulla over his tunic.
© FrenchAvatar via Wikimedia Commons [CC BY Attribution 3.0]

Plutarch (Quaes. Rom. 101) discusses bullae directly and raises at least three motives for the use of the pendant: in commemoration of Tarquin who was awarded one by his father for valour in battle; to identify free-born male youths when nude to prevent amorous advances; as a ‘badge’ of childhood. The reality may have been a combination of all three (see also references to bullae in Pliny (Nat. Hist. 33.4), Suetonius (Jul. 84) and Livy (26.36)).

Where am I going with all this? Well I hoped to introduce a rather conflicting piece of evidence to balance this overwhelming association between bullae and young men. As one of my supervisors recently asked in a discussion of this “When is a bulla not a bulla?”.

My PhD focus is Roman Britain. I’m open and honest about my data gathering – I haven’t done it yet – so I’m unclear how many, if any there are from secure archaeological provenance here in Britain. The exception to this is one silver bulla in the Yorkshire Museum. This comes from a Late Roman inhumation grave, forming part of the extensive and high-quality jewellery assemblage accompanying the so-called ‘Ivory Bangle Lady’. This woman has been shown to have been of North-African descent (Leach et al. 2010), to have died age 18-23 and to have had a grave that included amber earrings, a fine blue-glass vessel, a glass mirror, jet bangles, African-ivory bangles, and an ivory inscription plaque. To complicate matters of interpretation, the inscription plaque is an early Christian dedication (SOROR AVE VIVAS IN DEO) in an inhumation which is, otherwise, visually ‘pagan’. In this one example, the use of the bulla (albeit in silver rather than gold) is associated not with a young male but with a young adult female. This specific bulla is at least not without comparison in form and material in the NW provinces: a 2nd century example from Toulon.


FIG 2: Silver bulla from the grave of the ‘Ivory Bangle Lady’, York. YORYM : H6
©York Museums Trust (Yorkshire Museum) [CC BY SA 4.0]


FIG 3: The skull and material assemblage from the grave of the ‘Ivory Bangle Lady’

Péchoux (2010, 35-37) catalogued 24 bullae from the area of Roman Gaul and noted their occurrence in gold, silver and bronze, and from inhumations and sarcophagi as well as other localities, such as a house and a kiln. They were frequently associated with funerary deposits; other associated grave goods from the catalogue include a mirror, brooches, ‘an ivory object’, ceramic(?) vessels, amber animal figurines and an antler roundel. The range of ancillary materials represented in Gaul correlates interestingly with the other grave goods of the Ivory Bangle Lady: a mirror, amber, ivory.

Perhaps the best piece of evidence which securely relates the bulla to female jewellery is the existence of ‘bulla earrings’ (for example, a 2nd Century AD gold pair in the British Museum) . They are clearly worn in a different way and, as such, would be devoid of the intrinsic social cues which are otherwise associated with bullae. Perhaps the earrings are simply globular gold discs, high-status and aesthetically pleasing and the association is a modern retrojection? It is difficult, though, not to draw comparisons and to consider that the same visual comparison may be drawn in antiquity. Thinking outside of the box – perhaps they are a pair of gold bullae proper which have been re-purposed for use? The link that such a thing would provide to a family’s history and continuity cannot be unimportant. Bullae are closely related to life-course changes (from boys to men) and this may be seen as an important time for parents as well as children; a momento or a token of this change does not seem beyond the realms of possibility.

Returning to the silver bulla-shaped pendant in a Late Roman female inhumation. How can this unusual use of a bullae be rationalised in terms of the wider data set? At present there are no obvious explanations that present themselves, so I shall instead continue to speculate. We know of (usually) silver lunulae worn by women and young girls around the Empire; perhaps the joining of material and image could be an attempt at combining the protective qualities of each and this pendant served a similar function. Even if this is a ‘true’ male bulla in a female inhumation grave, it does not reflect the use of such an object in life. It certainly raises questions – Is this indicative of a male presence, such as a son or younger brother, outside of her grave? How ‘late’ is this Late Roman grave (if 4th century, this may reflect a change in use)? Is there anything inside the pendant? There are, equally, broader questions: Other than ‘tradition’, why are women not depicted with bullae? Does the protection offered still work? Is this shape of pendant always used as an indicator of identity and social status?


FIG. 4. Pair of Gold Bulla earrings in the British Museum
©Trustees of the British Museum [CC BY-NC-SA 4.0]



Thanks to both Michael Marshall (Museum of London) and Glynn Davis (Colchester Museums) mainly for just reading the original version of this blog, but also for sending me references to two relevant bullae from two very different Romano-British contexts. The first is a copper-alloy bulla which may have strung on a silver chain, found in a hoard of military awards and jewellery from Colchester and, interestingly, associated with Boudiccan period destruction; 1st Century and comparable with the ‘traditional’ use of bullae in the Roman world (Crummy 2016). It is now on display in Colchester Castle.

The second is an inhumation of a mature female, dated AD 140-250. At the neck she wore a twisted copper alloy torc/neck ring upon which hung a copper alloy bulla (Watson 2003). Its not as late as Ivory Bangle Lady, but provides another excellent piece of evidence for an association with women and bullae. The neck ring shows also that this example would have been worn tight against the body, close to the neck rather than dangling towards the chest (as on infant bullae) in a manner much more comparable with how lunulae are shown to be worn.



Ancient Sources

Livy, History of Rome. Trans. Moore, F. G. 1943. Livy. Books XXVI-XXVII with an English Translation. Cambridge, Mass., Harvard University Press; London, William Heinemann. [Available http://www.perseus.tufts.edu/hopper/text?doc=urn:cts:latinLit:phi0914.phi00126]

Pliny the Elder. Natural History. Trans. Bostock, J. [Available http://www.perseus.tufts.edu/hopper/text?doc=Plin.+Nat.+toc%5D

Suetonius, Divi Julius. Trans. Reed, J. E and Thomson, A. (eds) 1889. Suetonius: The Lives of the Twelve Caesars; An English Translation, Augmented with the Biographies of Contemporary Statesment, Orators, poets, and Other Associates. Philadelphia, Gebbie & Co. [Available http://www.perseus.tufts.edu/hopper/text?doc=urn:cts:latinLit:phi1348.abo011]


Modern Sources

Ammerman, R. M. 2007. “Children at Risk: Votive Terracottas and the Welfare of Infants at Paestum”, Hesperia Supplements 41 (Constructions of Childhood in Ancient Greece and Italy). The American School of Classical Studies at Athens. 131-151.

Cleland, L., Davies, F., and Llewellyn-Jones, L. 2007. Greek and Roman Dress from A to Z. London and New York, Routledge.

Croom, A. T. 2000. Roman Clothing and Fashion. Stroud, Tempus.

Crummy, N. 2016. “A Hoard of Military Awards, Jewellery and Coins from Colchester”, Britannia 47.

Leach, S., Eckardt, H., Chenery, C., Müldner, and Lewis, M. 2010. “A Lady of York: Migration, Ethnicity and Identity in Roman Britain”, Antiquity 84. 131-145.

Péchoux, L. 2010. “De l’enfance á l’âge adulte: recherche de preuves matérielle de rites de passage en Gaule romaine”. In Hameua, P. (ed) Les rites de passage, del la Grèce d’Homére à notre XXIe siècle. Isère. 25-38.

Ubi Erat Lupa (UEL) – http://www.ubi-erat-lupa.org/

Watson, S. 2003. An Excavation in the Western Cemetery of Roman London: Atlantic House, City of London  (MOLAS Archaeology Studies Series 7). London, Museum of London Archaeology Service.






About Chime: Roman Tintinnabulae in Britain?

One of the most complex representations of the phallic image in the Roman world is its inclusion in tintinnabulae; metal wind-chimes which contain a central figure surrounded by long chains terminating in bells. Now, there is ample evidence to suggest that the phallic image performed some sort of apotropaic function in the Roman world both from sources both ancient (Varro, De Lingua Latina 7.97; Aristophanes, Archanians 241; Pliny the Elder, Natural History 28.7) and modern (Turnbull 1978; Johns 1982; Dumas 2012) and this certainly relates to aspect of the archaeology of Roman Britain (Greep 1983; Plouviez 2005; Parker 2015). My favourite and, oft quoted, reference to the functionality of the phallic image in the Roman world is by Ralph Merrifield who called it a “kind of lightning conductor for bad luck” (Merrifield 1969, 170).

To my knowledge there are no cohesive catalogues of tintinnabulae in the Roman world, the nearest thing I have come across is a 1985 article by Blazquez, J. M. “Tintinnabula de Merida y de Sasamon (Burgos)” Zephyrus 38, 331-335. Certainly in Anglophone publications there is very little which actually account for some of the possible material and spatial concerns which might help a better understanding of these curious and often humorous objects.

There are two eponymous images of the phallo-form wind chimes. One is a zoomorphic phallic beast depicted as a macrophallic and curving ithyphallic phallus with a pair of feline hind legs with a snaking tail terminating in a phallus and a secondary and smaller phallus extending from between its legs. It is winged and has a pair of ears flanking the glans. Simple linked chains extend from the tips of each wing and from beneath the glans, the secondary phallus and one foot, and all of these terminate in a domed bell.

Its famous compatriot is a more stylised version from Herculaneum in which a dwarven gladiator is fighting a tiger which happens to also be his penis; the base of the animal extends from his groin in a long shaft. He also has five bells strung beneath him (ibid.). Generally speaking, the exact nature of the figure and number and arrangements of the bells of tintinnabulae is variable – a macrophallus features prominently, but not exclusively, in the known examples; a conical (phallo-form?) bell with human face is known from Merida, Spain (Blazquez 1985, figs. 1-2).

FIGURE 1: (Left) A Zoomorphic, Macro- and Poly-phallic tintinnabulum. Image © TRUSTEES OF THE BRITISH MUSEUM [CC BY-NC-SA 4.0]
(Right) A stylised dwarven gladiator fighting his own zoomorphic phallus tintinnabulum. Both now in the British Museum. Image Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons.

The obvious thing to note from these two examples is the aspect of multiplication of objects – of both bells and phalli. Polyphallism in this case, may be an attempt at increasing the efficacy of a single phallus. The use of multiple bells in a single example may also represent an attempt of multiplication or enhancing. No studies are available which account for the pitch or tone of a set of such bells, but a simple visual inspection reveals differing sizes of the bells– thus producing different notes when rung. The sound produced by a Roman wind chime, assuming at least two and possibly up to five individual notes, is a complex, randomised and constantly changing tune. The pleasantness of the notes ringing is combined with the organic chaos of their order and the potential for continuous play.

There is a complex literary relationship between ritual/magico-religious acts and noise-making in the classical sources based on the verb tintino ‘to ring’ (Ammianus Marcellinus, Rerum Gestarum 17.11; Juvenal, Satire 6.440; Plautus Pseudolus 1.3 and Truculentus 4.3). In a mundane, functional sense the wearing of bells is also primarily associated with livestock (Petronius, Satyricon 47; Apuleius, Metamorphoses 10.18). The attribution of bells as apotropaic is piecemeal – associations with elements of ritual performance for religious functions is a strong part of this argument but the nature and use of such bells in these contexts is unclear. A tenuous association with animals in the literature is at least developed by the frequently zoomorphic nature of the tintinnabulae figures.

The core association of wind chimes as apotropaic comes from the overt and frequent use of phallic imagery in such contexts – the discovery of bells as single finds is problematic in this light. Bells are, of course, used as individual objects and may not have been associated with a group of bells but the extent to which they may have served an apotropaic function is entirely open for debate. As individual finds there are a range of associated functions which must also be considered as part of their specific function – as an indicator of movement, as a toy, or as part of a larger musical assemblage.

The largest collection of tintinnabulae encountered so far by the author is in the British Museum. The catalogue includes at least seventeen complete or partial tintinnabulae but none of these have a British provenance attached. At the time of writing the Portable Antiquities Scheme lists 162 copper alloy bells considered to be Roman but none of the figural aspects of the wind chimes. It should be pointed out that I have, so far, utterly failed to find a single example of a tintinnabulum from a secure Romano-British provenance.

The European Artefacts database lists at least fifteen individual types of Roman clochette (bell) with tentative dating evidence supplied from several continental European contexts (see CLT-4001 to CLT-4022) In all cases the bells are copper alloy, but the form changes slightly – in general terms the bells are either hemispherical, trapezoidal, conical, squat and straight-sided or, for want of a better phrase, ‘bell-shaped’ (rounded at the top, narrowing slightly at the waist and flaring outwards at the foot). It is likely to have an integral suspension loop, the majority of which are lozenge-shaped (or hexagonal) with a large circular perforation, but examples without these are recorded in the typology. The earliest type listed is from the first half of the first century AD (CLT-4001) and the latest from AD 350-425 (CLT-4008).

There is a problem in directly associating the bells with tintinnabulae proper and the overt imagery they may have depicted. Comparable copper alloy bells, disassociated from any chain and thus any larger ‘wind chime’ assemblage have been discovered in several funerary contexts in Roman Britain (Cool 2004, 159; Crummy 2010, 83) primarily associated with children – an observation paralleled in at least three child inhumations in the vicinity of Arras, northern France (Jelski 1984, 277); in all cases these are also associated with phallic pendants as part of the grave assemblage.

As well as the secondary use of bells in a funerary context, we must consider the primary use of a wind chime in a spatial sense – it requires access to moving air to function on its own and thus must be hung in a location with access to the open air, or otherwise physically accessible if being struck by hand, or both. In reality we do not know exactly where tintinnabulae were used but windows, doors, courtyards, and gardens all present themselves as natural candidates to fulfil these spatial criteria. If this is the case, such boundary locations may be interpreted as the same liminal locations in the physical world which required protection by phallic carvings. The difference is that wind chimes are portable and can be moved occasionally, seasonally or daily to a new location if need be so establishing a functional locale may prove impossible..


Cool, H. E. M. 2004.  The Roman Cemetery of Brougham, Cumbria: Excavations 1966-67 (Britannia Monograph Series no. 21). London, Society for the Promotion of Roman Studies.

Crummy, N. 2010. “Bears and Coins: The Iconography of Protection in Late Roman Infant Burials”, Britannia 41. 37-93.

Dumas, C. 2012. “L’art érotique de la mythologie au spiritual”, Sexe á Rome: Au-del á des idées Reçues (Dossier d’Archéologie 22). 14-19.

Greep, S. 1983. “Note on Bone Fist and Phallus Pendants”, in Crummy, N. 1983. Colchester Archaeological Report 2: The Small Finds from Excavations in Colchester1971-9. Colchester, Colchester Archaeological Trust. [Available here]

Jelski, G. 1984. “Pendentifs phallique, clochettes et peltae dans les tombs d’enfants de Gaule Belgique: Une découverte à Arras”, Revue du Nord 66. 260-279.

Johns, C. 1982. Sex and Symbol? Erotic Images of Greece and Rome. London, British Museum Press.

Merrifield, R. 1969. Roman London. London, Cassell.

Parker, A. 2015. “The Fist-and-Phallus Pendants from Roman Catterick”, Britannia 46. 135-149.

Plouviez, J. 2005 “Whose Good Luck? Roman Phallic Ornaments from Suffolk”, in Crummy, N. (ed) Image, Craft and the Classical World. Essasys in Honour of Donald Bailey and Catherine Johns (Monographies Instrumentum 29). Montagnac, Mergoil. 154-164.

Turnbull, P. 1978. “The Phallus in the Art of Roman Britain”, Bulletin of the Institute of Archaeology, University of London 15. 199-206.

Magic & The Pitt Rivers Museum: A Reflection

On 9th June 2016 I happened to have a free afternoon in Oxford between community talks and, having had to rush a visit to the Oxford University Museum of Natural History here in 2014 , incorporated into which is the Pitt Rivers Museum, I could not pass an opportunity to partake again of its museological delights.

IMG_20160609_134933Pitt Rivers Museum: A deliberate close encounter 

For the uninitiated, the Pitt Rivers Museum  is a free, public display space incorporating the 18,000 or so archaeology, anthropological and ethnographic objects donated to Oxford University by General Augustus Pitt Rivers  and, subsequently, thoroughly expanded to over half a million individual objects. To explain a little bit about the museum proper do allow me to quote directly from the website:

“In most ethnographic and archaeological museums the objects are arranged according to geographical or cultural areas. At the Pitt Rivers Museum, they are arranged according to type: musical instruments, weapons, masks, textiles, jewellery, and tools are all displayed to show how the same problems have been solved at different times by different peoples. Many of the cases appear to be very crowded, as a large percentage of the total collection is on view. In some instances, the ‘displays’ are essentially visible storage. If you look carefully you will see that actually a great deal of information is provided about individual objects. There are often small labels, many of them hand printed by the first Curator, which are very revealing. Other information was written onto objects and we also have more modern large display labels in most cases.”

The antiquarian cases are squeezed onto the lower gallery’s open floor space and surmounted by the first and second floor ambulatory spaces above these. The cases downstairs are painted black, devoid of the modern technological input one might associated with a modern museum (the LED downlights, digital thermo-hygrographs, complicated locking mechanisms, QR codes, and AV interpretation) and stand above head-height. They are squeezed into the space with a metre or less between each. The tiny hand-written labels are hard to read and a single 100-word panel in each case describes the general theme without delving too much into the historical niceties.

This description might sound like an awful way to display artefacts, but the effect is astonishing. It absolutely works; the space becomes immersive in a way I have not experienced in any other museum. The low lighting forces you to peer inwards and around objects to see what might catch your eye. Indeed, this methodology of wandering around and gazing at those that do catch your eye is the method I use for getting most enjoyment out of my time here. It isn’t linear, there isn’t a chronology, and after a few moments the sheer quantity of visual stimuli bearing down on the viewer causes the brain’s ability to reconcile or interpret it all to shut down. Perhaps that isn’t quite the right phrase: I find myself passing through the desire to learn explicitly, in a linear fashion and to absorb images and facts into a fuzzy, warm and comforting space where the implicit characteristics of the material culture become prevalent. It sounds romantic but as a heritage fanatic (and an empiricist) this kind of experience is almost spiritual.

The area which really caught my eye (and had not done so on my previous visit tothe Museum in 2014) was the alphabetised casing plan highlighting six cases with the letter D. The ‘D’ cases displayed, in this gloriously chaotic fashion, material associated with ‘Magic, Ritual, Religion and Belief’. Now, for me, this phrase buzzed around in my head all afternoon. The grouping is intended to promote the material culture of ‘supernatural’ elements of human experience. The cases were subdivided by the groups ‘Amulets and Charms’, ‘Amulets, Charms and Divination’, ‘Charms Against the Evil Eye’, ‘Sympathetic Magic’, and ‘Religious Figures and Artefacts’. The Materia Magica was plentiful indeed and took shapes and forms I had never seen, being from well outside my academic comfort zone. The question that kept me standing there for fully fifteen minutes looking at a couple of cases was: how did someone decide on these groups? Magic and Religion are separated by these definitions. The ‘religion’ was primarily votive religion so one might assume then that the magic was not then votive? Apparently not so. There is no seperation of material or, apparently, function.

The Materia Magica of Humans

One presumes that the viewer is supposed to make up your own mind about what religion and magic then represent, despite the fact that the gallery already groups things in such a way and takes some of that onus away. The idea I instead decided to take away from this display is the connectedness of religion and magic within the history of the human experience (and was happy to do so) but I find myself still returning to the idea of nomenclature. Definitions again – damn. ‘Magic’, ‘ritual’, ‘religion’ and ‘belief’ are all individual concepts but their explicit connections are wonderfully muddied and can be (and have been) argued over for decades. Magic and religion may or may not exist as functionally separate concepts in the archaeological record. They may or may not exist as functionally separate concepts in the modern world (that viewpoint being dependent upon who you are, where you are, and your own unique cultural experience). Magic and religion both have ritual elements but ritual does not have be either magical or religious. The inclusion of ‘belief’ in this category is, to my mind, the most contentious of all of them because it is by far the most difficult idea to prove and the most amorphous of all these ideas. Belief must have existed within the concepts of magic and religion and ritual but magic, religion and ritual do not (inherently) require belief for them to be enacted or performed or built. If might require belief for there to efficacy to the action, but not to do them in the first place. Equally, belief undoubtedly exists in individual forms that one might not be able to label as any of the above, so the question then remains how does one identify the material culture of belief?

It’s not a question I can answer. Whether it is deliberate or not, the display in the Pitt Rivers Museum challenged me to define these concepts myself and apply them in my own unique way to the material in front of me devoid of its temporal and geographic context. I was quite aware both at the time and now that my recent studies into the theoretical nature of these terms will undoubtedly impact on my interpretation and consumption of the material on display and has caused me to question both it and myself in an effort to construct some sort of coherence out the museological miasma. I pondered also whether anyone else in the museum was having the same dilemma for that or other material. I pondered further whether materially or culturally specific historic/academic knowledge is a burden or a benefit in this instance: to my mind it could be a burden because one knows there is a greater story to tell and, as historians we are instilled with a desire to tell the stories of people and objects as best we can, so to be unable to engage with this is frustrating; equally, the benefit may come from understanding one object or type of object in detail and being able to use it as a rally-point from which to attempt to understand the inevitably unfamiliar material on display alongside it. Perhaps the mystery is more interesting or more enjoyable? I suppose it depends on what you want from a visit to the museum.

The Museum, more explicitly, is designed to represent the material culture of parts of the human experience in a very generalised and unscientific way. What then does this particular Museum have to offer if it has no specific story to tell? For me it is an immersive space, not worried about the story of the individual objects but about the shared experiences that they are able to represent across vast expanses of time and space (as it turns out that is the point). I, on reflection, found it a place that made me think. It made me think in a quite abstract way about the archaeological material I am personally interested in. This time, same as last, I haven’t left remembering a star object or a specific story but remembering the space and remembering the emotive reaction.

Well played Pitt Rivers Museum. Now then, about those Evil Eye charms…

Artefact in Focus: A Gold Disc depicting the Evil Eye

Perhaps one of the most incontrovertibly ‘magical’ objects from Roman Britain is a gold disc depicting a scene in which the Evil Eye (the supernatural personification of ‘bad luck’) is suppressed by its enemies. It was recorded by the Portable Antiquities Scheme (Fig. 1).


Figure 1: Gold Disc from Norfolk (PAS: NMS-B9A004)
(C) Portable Antiquities Scheme [CC Attribution 2.0]

Discovered in February 2012 in a field just outside of Norwich, the gold disc was legally declared as Treasure because it is over 300 years old and comprises more than 10% by weight of precious metal. The exact metal content is not provided, but at 20mm diameter and weighing in at 1.0g it is not a substantial object. Following the Treasure process, the disc was acquired by Norwich Castle Museum.

The delicate gold disc was originally recorded as an earring, but this identification is not definitive. The repousse decoration depicts an eye in its centre, lidded with a central pupil or iris, surrounded by eight figures primarily pointing towards it. Clockwise from the top these are: a lion (facing right), a phallus, a crab, another phallus, a snake, a scorpion, a single arrow, and a bow with an arrow notched and pulled back. The Eye, in this guise is the ‘all-suffering eye’ (Worrell and Pearce 2014, 419). In the Roman world the Eye is something that is feared. All was not lost as its malignant forces could be deflected or actively fought by other supernatural images. Movie goers might draw comparisons between this representation of Evil and the glorious rendered Eye of Sauron in The Lord of the Rings movie franchise – and they would not be incorrect in doing so (Fig. 2).


Figure 2: The Eye of Sauron
Public Domain (from here)

Bear with me here: like Sauron, the Classical Eye is always singular, always present, able to be distracted (Lord of the Rings plot point: when seeking Frodo and Sam in Mordor, the Eye of Sauron’s gaze shifts to the seemingly suicidal battle at the Black gate), and can ultimately be defeated by the actions of small men. The latter might seem most preposterous, but the most famous depiction of this ‘all-suffering eye’ scene is a second-century BC floor mosaic from a house in Antioch (Fig. 3). This example is attacked by (clockwise from the top) a trident, a sword, a scorpion, a snake, a small dog, a centipede(?), a macrophallic phallic dwarf/satyr playing the pipes, a cheetah, and a raven.


Figure 3: Mosaic depicting the ‘all-suffering Eye’
Public Domain (see here)

The first sentence of this piece suggests that the Norwich gold disc is magical; I appreciate that this is a bold statement, but the reasoning for this is that this iconography is wonderfully unusual and always bespoke in the specific ‘enemies’ it utilises to attack the eye. Exoticism, in this case of an image, can itself be regarded as something inherently powerful or which can have incorporated into a passive magical ritual (see Wilburn 2012, ch.2). Additionally, gold certainly holds some form of amuletic function when used to depict phallic objects (see Johns 1982 and here), amulet cases, and lamellae. We haven’t yet covered my conceptual approach to what exactly magic IS or DOES in this blog (PhD Chapter 1 is in progress), but the use of the Evil Eye as an ethereal supernatural baddy is certainly interesting because it represents something to be feared and the mechanisms by which one might do so. i.e. a protective/amuletic instruction guide showing a cause-and-remedy situation.

The Evil Eye is very definitely a Roman import into Britain and, as an image, isn’t hugely popular in the succeeding historical periods – largely, one assumes, because it does not fit as well into the Christian narrative of victory over evil coming ready-made with its own enemies personified into more nuanced concepts than the Evil Eye can deliver.

As an image, when the evil eye is depicted in Roman material culture it is most often being attacked. The only examples I am personally aware of that do so across the entire Roman Empire are phallic carvings and they do so in a very biological way (Fig.4). To be absolutely clear, these phallic carvings are ejaculating over an Eye. At least three examples of this scene are visible in carvings from Roman Britain – from forts at Maryport, Chesters, and a unstratified example from Lincolnshire. A recent find from Catterick might also show a phallus ejaculating towards an evil eye depicted on a different piece of stone (Parker and Ross 2016).


Figure 4: Relief carving foa phallus attacking the Evil Eye. Leptis Magna.
(C) Wikimedia Commons [CC By SA 3.0]

Looking at the ‘enemies’ of the Evil Eye one wonders if there are comparisons to be made with the Tauroctony narrative defining the Cult of Mithras. In the ‘killing of the bull‘ Mithras kneels on the back of the bull, Phrygian cap atop his head and cape billowing heroically in the wind, stabbing it in the throat with a knife. A small dog jumps up at the blood, which always has a snake to its left and a scorpion heading towards the bull’s testes to the left of that. A raven sits in the top left corner. This example has the torch bearers Cautes and Cautopates, and the sun and the moon deities at racing in the pediment but we can largely ignore these latter characters for the sake of this point.


Figure 5: Mithraic Tauroctony from Rome.
(C)Wikimedia Commons [CC 3.0]

At face value, lets compare the two images of the ‘all suffering eye’ with the Tauroctony: In the Antioch mosaic, the raven is in the same location, as is the dog leaping up towards the Eye and it has a sword stuck into its upper edge. The scorpion and the snake are also both present. In the Norfolk disc the scorpion and snake are in comparable positions to the Tauroctony but that is all that might match. Both leo (lion) and miles (soldier) are also levelled ranks within the Mithraic cult and a crouched lion is depicted in some examples of Tauroctony.










Does this mean anything? Well no, not that I would safely argue at this point, but I don’t think that the idea is just jumping at shadows. The images used in the battle against the Eye and in Mithraism both have celestial counterparts (indeed the Tauroctony scene largely depicts the Northern Hemisphere night sky if one takes Mithras as Orion), but individually have their own relevant (and wildly complex) iconographic histories. Snakes are associated with Asclepius, healing, and are sometime chthonic (with Medusa for example); phalli are the supernatural ‘lightning conductors’ of the Roman world; lions feature prominently in Roman art and are used as funerary furniture in Britain.

Suffice to say at this point that the little gold disc represents a hugely complicated historical narrative of protective imagery in the Roman world; there is certainly something more interesting going on here than just animals surrounding an Eye.


Johns, C. 1982. Sex or Symbol: Erotic Image of Greece and Rome.

Parker, A. and Ross, C. 2016. “A New Phallic Carving from Roman Catterick”, Britannia 47 [http://dx.doi.org/10.1017/S0068113X16000118]

Wilburn, A. T. 2012. Materia Magica: The Archaeology of Magic in Roman Egypt, Cyprus, and Spain. Ann Arbor, University of Michigan Press.

Worrell, S. and Pearce, J. 2014. “II. Finds Reported under the Portable Antiquities Scheme”, Britannia 45, 397-429 .

Collecting Definitions

**Please consider this list as incomplete and very much a work in progress that I intend to add to progressively**

The academic study of magic requires an appreciation of what magic actually might be. Ultimately we don’t know or, at least, we don’t agree! Scholars from the realms of archaeology, anthropology, sociology, history, classics, philosophy and others have all made attempts at defining the phenomenon of magic. Such definitions can be in terms explicit to the material culture, society or historical time frame the individual scholar is looking at or working within.

As much for my own future benefit as for posterity this post will act as a simple list of the definitions I have collected so far. This isn’t a synthetic operation, nor a particularly analytical one, but a collective home for the disparate semantic approaches to ‘magic’. Inevitably there will be many more than I am able to get my hands on. If you, dear reader, are privy to one such gem please add it into the comments with a full bibliographical reference.



Religion is used to indicate the belief in supernatural or spiritual beings; ‘magic’, the use of practices intended to bring occult forces under control and so to influence events; ‘ritual’, prescribed or customary behaviour that may be religion if it is intended to placate supernatural beings, magical if it is intended to operate through impersonal forces of sympathy or by controlling supernatural beings” (Merrifield 1987, 6).
Merrifield, R. 1987. The Archaeology of Ritual and Magic. London: BT Batsford.

“[Magic is] the ritual behaviours, actions, and methods employed within the construct of religion to interact with and influence the supernatural world” (Manning 2014, 1).
Manning, M.C. 2014. “Magic, Religion, and Ritual in Historical Archaeology”, Historical          Archaeology 48 (3). 1-9.


“Magic can be summarised as a set of practices intended to predict or manipulate the weather and other natural forces, influence the behaviour of people, plants and animals, control the future, supernatural forces and spiritual beings, or to seek the assistance of the latter” (Chadwick 2015, 37).
Chadwick, A. M. 2015. “Doorways, Ditches and Dead Dogs – Excavating and Recording            Material Manifestations of Practical Magic Amongst Later Prehistoric and Romano-              British Communities”, in Houlbrook, C. and Armitage, N. (eds.). The Materiality of                    Magic: An Artifactual Study Investigation into Religious Practices and Popular Belief. Oxford,           Oxbow. 37-64.

“Magic was firmly grounded in the ritual actions, including spoken or written words and the manipulation of objects. These rituals typically are performed with the expectations of a particular result. Magic may draw on religious traditions for both efficacy and exoticism.Magic is frequently a private or personal activity, although certain practices might be undertaken in the public sphere.” (Wilburn 2012, 15)
Wilburn, A. T. 2012. Materia Magica: the Archaeology of Magic in Roman Egypt, Cyprus, and Spain. Ann Arbor, University of Michigan Press.

“The term ‘magic’ has served to indicate, in the history of Western culture, a variety of ideas and or practices, often related to religion and/or science. Consequently the term has been historically defined and understood in many different ways, according to the context in which it has been used” (Pasi 2006, 1134).
Pasi, M. 2006. “Magic”, in von Stuckrad, K. The Brill Dictionary of Religion, Volume III, M-          R. Leiden & Boston, Brill.


“…by ‘magic’ I mean neither the illusions and parlours tricks of a Houdini nor ‘magic; in the more diffuse literary sense of ‘fantastical’ such as one finds in the so-called magical realise of recent Latin American writers. Rather, I mean a set of practical devices and rituals used by the Greeks in their day-to-day lives to control or otherwise influence supernaturally the forces of nature, animals, or other human beings” (Faraone 2001, 16).
Faraone, C. A. 2001. Ancient Greek Love Magic. Cambridge, Massachussets and London, England, Harvard University Press.


“Generally, magic as action can be simply defined as goal-directed techniques (rites) that use a specific understanding of causality.” (Hukantaival 2015, 186)

Hukantaival, S. 2015. “Understanding Past Actions – Changing Attitudes Towards Ritual, Religion and Everyday Life”, in Haak, A., Lang, V., and Lavento, M. (eds) Today I Am Not the One I Was Yesterday: Archaeology, Identity and Change (Interarchaeologia 4). Tartu, Helsinki, Riga, and Vilnius. 183-196.



“One approach, exemplified by Daniel O’Keefe’s book Stolen Lightning, could be called historical. O’Keefe draws on anthropology, psychoanalysis, and history to try to explain the origins of magic in human societies. He defines magic (“in the strict sense”) as sacred institutions related to religion but often of an illicit or peripheral nature and mostly based on the relationship between practitioner and client rather than on a community relationship” (O’Keefe 1982 in Davila 1997).
O’Keefe, D. L. 1982. Stolen Lightning: The Social Theory of Magic. New York, Continuum Publishing.
Davila, J. 1997. “Ancient Magic (The Prayer of Jacob)”. University of St. Andrews Online Lecture. [Available online] (May 2016)


“A general term that covers any attempt to control the environment or the self by means that are either untested or untestable, such as charms or spells.”
Campbell, C. 1998. “Magic”, in Swatos, W. H., Encyclopedia of Religion and Society. [Available online] (May 2016)



“The methods that somehow interface with the supernatural and which can bring about particular outcomes” (Stein and Stein 2008, 140).
Stein, R. L. and Stein, P. L. 2008. The Anthropology of Religion, Magic and Witchcraft. Boston.


“Magic is defined by Cultural Anthropologists – in my view, correctly – as a technique of action or the use of a forumla performed for producing gain; in others, to ward off harm from others; in some instances to effect harm on one’s antagonists” (Kee 1989, 122)
Kee, H. C. 1989 “Magic and Messiah”, in Neusner, J., Frerichs, E. S., and Flesher, P. V. Mc. Religion, Science, and Magic: In Concert and in Conflict. New York and Oxford, Oxford Universiy Press. 121-141.

“In its quintessential form – and this is the early Judaic legacy that has coloured subsequent Western thought – magic is ritual action that is held to be automatically effective, and ritual action that dabbles with forces and objects that are outside the scope, or independent,  of the gods. Magical acts in their ideal forms are thought to have an intrinsic and automatic efficacy.” (Tambiah 1990, 7)
Tambiah, S. J. 1990. Magic, science, religion, and the scope of rationality. Cambridge, Cambridge University Press.



“The power of apparently influencing events by using mysterious or supernatural forces.”
Google ‘define’ function (May 2016)


“The use of rituals or actions, especially based on supernatural or occult knowledge, to manipulate or obtain information about the natural world, especially when seen as falling outside the realm of religion; also the forces allegedly drawn on for such practices.”

Wiktionary (May 2016)


 “The art of producing a desired effect or result through the use of incantation or various other techniques that presumably assure human control of supernatural agencies or the forces of nature.”
Dictionary.com (May 2016)


“The art that, by use of spells, supposedly invokes supernatural powers to influence events; sorcery.”
Collins Dictionary (May 2016)


“The use of means (as charms or spells) believed to have supernatural power over natural forces / An extraordinary power or influence seemingly from a supernatural source.”
Merriam-Webster (May 2016)



” [Magic] is the Art Of Causation. Magic is creating change by connecting with the energies of nature. These energies of nature exist in all things, all solid matter is made of atoms, sub-atom particles, below this level is pure energy. At the this level of pure energy, there is no solid matter, here everything is connected by threads of energy. Magic is the control and manipulation of these threads of energy, this energy exists at all levels and planes, so by creating changes to these energy threads causes effects to occur within the physical plane.”
The White Goddess (May 2016)



note: whilst Roman law does include elements of magical ritual (e.g. in the Twelve Tables VII.3) these are not dealt with in this list.

Not explicitly a definition of magic, but a list of ‘magical’ practices in 16th Century England codified into Law.

“[It is forbidden to]  use, devise, practise or exercise, or cause to be devysed practised or exercised, any Invovacons or cojuracons of Sprites witchecraftes enchauntementes or sorceries to thentent to fynde money or treasure or to waste consume or destroy any persone in his bodie membres, or to pvoke [provoke] any persone to unlawfull love, or for any other unlawfull intente or purpose … or for dispite of Cryste, or for lucre of money, dygge up or pull downe any Crosse or Crosses or by such Invovacons or cojuracons of Sprites witchecraftes enchauntementes or sorceries or any of them take upon them to tell or declare where goodes stollen or lost shall become…”
Witchcraft Act 1542 (Britain) (May 2016)


Artefact in Focus: The Welwyn Charm

Starting a sporadic series of ‘artefact in focus’ blogs, this short contribution will be one of a series which seeks to outline a single object and contextualise its imagery, circumstances of discovery and (where and if possible/relevant) to discuss its wider implications. Needless to say the objects involved will be ‘magical’ [insert semantic debate here!].

The intaglio from Welwyn, Hertfordshire or ‘The Welwyn charm’, as it may or may not be known generally, refers to a single haematite intaglio (measuring 17mm x 13.5mm x 2.4mm) well published in two different sources (Wright 1964; Frere and Tomlin 1992, no. 2423.1). It is one of a small series of similar gemstone incised with complex text and imagery from Roman Britain. To my knowledge there is not a single catalogue of the type from the Roman world, but I stand to be happily corrected on that score.

Now, copyright licenses prevent me from shameless publishing a photograph of the intaglio online, but the transitive powers of Google image search are wonderful. A grainy, black and white image associated will pop up in a google image search by following this link. Thankfully, a wonderful line drawing was published in the RIB volume. Within the bounds of Copyright Fair Use please see Fig. 1


Figure 1: Line drawing of the Welwn Charm, RIB 2423.1 (after Frere and Tomlin 1992)

The imagery on this gemstone is wonderful. Bearing in mind that it is less than 2cm in length it depicts a central figure of Isis, facing left with hand raised, towards an image of Bes, facing forwards. To the right of Isis is a lioness standing proud. Those three figures reside on a simple floor or platform, beneath which is an octopus-like ‘uterine symbol’ above a thin, seven-toothed key facing upwards. The seven Greek vowels, Α Ε Η Ι Ο Υ Ω, are dotted around them (Fig.2). This micro-scene is bound within an Ouroboros (a snake-eating its own tail) and that then surrounded by a palindrome:



Phonetically: Ay-meen-ay-baroth-ere-thorab-eaene-me-ah

Well, almost a palindrome. An extra epsilon (E) is underlined.

That’s the first side done.

The intaglio includes more on its reverse side which, if set in a ring, would never be seen. The reverse includes another Greek inscription OPWPIOYΘIΛHWIΛWAWI within which are a Scarab and a second ‘uterine symbol’.



Figure 2: Appended verison of Fig. 1

Plenty to talk about then. There are a number of elements within this single object that have ‘magical’ resonance elsewhere in the Classical world. The first is the use of the seven Greek vowels, referred to in the Papyri Grecae Magicae (PGM, see Betz 1992) a.k.a ‘the Greek Magical Papyri’. The PGM are a series of Greek papyri found in Egypt which act as a sort of beginner’s guide to making gods, demons and spirits do your bidding. It is an amazing resource for the literary study of magic, even though it is does have a little bit of ‘Hubble bubble, toil and trouble’ about it. Rarely, though can it be used to discuss artefactual evidence, and material evidence from the other side of the Roman Empire.

The PGM, like their close cousins in Britain, the curse-tablets (for curse-tablets see the blog of fellow Open University PhD adventurer, Stuart McKie), often rely upon nonsensical words and phrases, the voces magicae, to add a bit of ritual razzmatazz into the magical proceedings. Phrases may have been designed to be incomprehensible (and thus only to be interpreted by Supernaturals) or repeatable as a sort of chant – have a go at the Welwyn palindrome above and see what I mean.

The imagery is fairly clear as representing some form of protection designed for women, and possibly during childbirth – the ‘uterine symbol’ might be a giveaway there, but the lioness, Bes and even the deep red colour of the haematite are all visually relevant. Other Greek-inscribed gems in the Roman world include works like “womb” and “black” and one specific example includes the Ouroboros symbol framing an inscription calling upon the supernatural powers to “save [him/her] who wears this amulet”  (van den Hoek et al. 2015, 330-331).

If that interpretation is correct it suggests that the charm is designed for use at specific liminal times and by specific people: perhaps by a women during labour, and therefore only used for (hopefully) a couple of hours at a time. It may have been worn, read out line one or multiple times, carried, dropped into food or drink before consumption. Some similar charms have the user’s name on them – this one is not so specific. It could be used by more than one woman in more than one family. Pure speculation, but it could have been hired rather than worn, or brought along on the day by a midwife.

Interestingly, Isis and Bes also team up on two different spells in the PGM (VII.222-49 and VIII.64-110). The latter of these starts:

Request for a dream oracle of Bes{a}: On your left hand draw Besa in the way shown to you below. Put around your hand a black cloth of Isis and go to sleep without giving answer to anyone. The remainder of the cloth wrap around your neck…

It then carries on for another fifty or lines of drawing Gods, shouting out Greek letters and plenty of sleep. The interesting mention of a ‘black cloth of Isis’ refers to an ‘Isis band’, a cloth or piece of material taken from the dresses of statues of the gods, particularly Isis, because they were considered magically potent (Betz 1992, 336) and used as one of the ingredients in a spell in the same way that the images of Isis and Bes are used on the Welwyn charm.

The addition of the voces magicae and unusual Greek literary forms in combination with supernaturally relevant imagery (largely designed to focus the attention of the Gods/Demons/Supernatural powers being invoked) puts this gem very firmly in the ‘magic’ camp. Such gems represent a concentration of ingredients for magical rites and incorporate the stone itself, colour, performative imagery, words and signs.



Betz, H. D. (ed.) 1992. The Greek Magical Papyri in Translation (Including the Demotic Spells). 2nd Edition. Chicago and London, University of Chicago Press.

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. No. 2423.1

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.

Wright, R. P. 1964. “A Graeco-Egyptian Amulet from a Romano-British Site at Welwyn, Herts.”, The Antiquaries Journal 44 (2). 143-146. DOI: http://dx.doi.org/10.1017/S0003581500018060

Magus the Magician?

Various modern authors start their academic treatises on ancient magic with the paraphrased proclamation that the word ‘Magic’ comes from Persian and denotes some form of fire priest. Fritz Graf’s first sentence in Chapter Two of his hugely influential Magic in the Ancient World (1994) says almost exactly that. He isn’t lying, but the evidence he is citing is much more interesting and deserving of additional column inches in, say, chapter one of a PhD project or even an online blog.

By all accounts, including Graf’s, the first actual mention of a version of the word ‘magic’ comes from the Behistun Inscription; a rather lovely multi-lingual inscription surrounding a relief sculpture on a cliff at Mount Behistun in modern day Iran. The initial author of the text was none other than Darius the Great (not the “famed” PopStars and Pop Idol musical chap Darius), but the Achaemenid Emperor (reigned 522 BC – 486 BC).

Bisotun Iran Relief Achamenid Period

Figure 1: The Behistun Inscription (AD 2006)
(C) Wikimedia Commons [Public Domain]

Arranged into five columns of text, the Behistun Inscription in Old Persian Cuneiform is an autobiographical text, similar to the (much later) Res Gestae of the Roman Emperor Augustus in its function, recounting the great deeds of the Emperor. Incidentally, he is the large bloke, third from the left on Fig. 1 standing on top of one of the failed usurpers to his rule – history quite literally being written by the winner in this case.

This usurper, or attempted usurper I should say, was Gaumâta.  Gaumâta the Magian. Mr the Magian, according to Darius, raised a rebellion against him by pretending to be Smerdis, the brother of Cambyses II, from whom Darius took the Empire. Gaumâta / Smerdis’s rebellion lasts from 1st July to 29th September 522BC. Darius won.

In recording Gaumâta as a ‘Magian’, or more accurately he does so as ‘Gaumâta the Magus’, where ‘magus’ is a singular form of ‘magian’, Darius is probably using the epithet as a reference to a geographical or social group rather than using it as a vocation (think ‘Philip the Arab’ or ‘Robin of Loxley’) (see Fig.2)


Figure 2: Old Persian Cuneiform text from the Behistun Inscription (Col. 1, Line 36).

There is latterly a great amount of confusion amongst ancient authors about whether the Magi/Magians are a group of people united by place or profession, or both. There is a very useful Livius.org page about it here. I intend not to delve into the detail from the later authors at this point, but suffice to say that the Magians, whoever, wherever, and whatever they were, became regarded as practitioners of some kind of holy, religious or esoteric knowledge. They become associated closely with Zoroastrian texts and remain involved in religious practices, according to the Book of Arda Viraf at least, until after the time of Alexander the Great. Whether this definition defines them as ‘magicians’ by modern standards is another question entirely…

Etymologically, and in Brief. From the Cuneiform ‘maguš’ we get the Greek ‘μάγος’ and then the Latin ‘magus’. It is from that point that the story of magic in the Roman world really begins.