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. Contextually differentiation from defixiones.

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

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.


Artefact 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] (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]

Pliny the Elder. Natural History. Trans. Bostock, J. [Available

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]


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) –

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…