Does Lincolnshire Roman Find Offer Clue To Emperor's Curse?

By Graham Spicer | 01 August 2007
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photo of a corroded metal tablet with a crease down the middle, a circular impression in the centre and a small hole in the top right corner

Could this be a curse against the Emperor Valens? © PAS

Archaeologists think they may have uncovered unique curse tablets used against a Roman Emperor at a time of political unrest in Roman Britain.

Early in the year metal detectorist Tom Redmayne discovered three folded lead tablets in a field in Fulstow, Lincolnshire

After carefully unfolding one of them he took the haul to his local Portable Antiquities Scheme Finds Liaison Officer, Adam Daubney, who helps record archaeological finds in Lincolnshire.

"He could see a faint impression of what looked like a coin, so he phoned me up,” said Adam. “He had already found a few late Roman coins and some pieces of Samian ware [Gaulish-made pottery] from the early to middle Roman period in the field, which were indicative of a high status settlement at the site.”

The tablets had holes drilled into them and Adam explained that Roman lead was sometimes used in this way to create curse tablets, although normally these objects featured written messages on them, which would have then been folded or rolled up and then pinned up on a wall of a temple or house.

photo of a corroded metal tablet with a crease down the middle and a small hole in the top left corner

The reverse of one of the lead tablets. © PAS

“The first thing that struck me was that the impression was the right diameter and the right size to be a late Roman coin,” said Adam. “I did wonder at first if it was a Medieval coin as it was so hard to see.”

“After numerous attempts to angle it in different ways in the light I was able to make out the word Valens.”

Valens was joint Roman Emperor from 364-378 AD and coins with his name have often been found in Lincolnshire - in fact some of the coins found by Tom Redmayne in the Fulstow field were of the same kind.

Adam phoned Sam Moorhead, a Roman coins expert from the British Museum, to try and find out more about the mysterious tablets.

photo of a brown rectangular object next to a ruler

Curse tablets have been found across Britain - this one from Leicester rails against the thief of a Roman cloak. Photo University of Leicester Archaeological Services

“We wondered at first if it was for forging Roman coins as this was rife at this time, and then Sam used a bit of lateral thinking and came up with the idea that this was in fact a pictorial curse tablet,” explained Adam.

Valens' reign was a time of political unrest in Britain and accounts by the Roman historian Ammianus Marcellinus tell the story of a Valentius, who had been exiled to Britain and was known for his rabble rousing against Theodosius, a general sent to Britain by Valens and his co-Emperor Valentian.

Sam thinks that the tablets could have been made during this time by a supporter of Valentius as an anonymous curse against the emperors. Whatever the truth, no other objects like these have been found in Britain and further research is now being undertaken to attempt to discover more about their purpose.

Several other Roman curse tablets been found in Britain, including a written curse against a cloak thief previously reported on the 24 Hour Museum.

The Portable Antiquities Scheme (PAS) is a voluntary scheme to record archaeological objects found by members of the public in England and Wales. More information is available on the PAS website.

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