Archaeological Dig In Leicester Uncovers Curse On Roman Cloak Thief

By Graham Spicer | 29 November 2006
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photo of a brown rectangular object next to a ruler

The curse tablet lists about 18 or 19 suspects for the crime of the stolen cloak... Photo University of Leicester Archaeological Services

Forget ASBOs or community service - Roman Britons had their own way of dealing with miscreants: stick a curse on them.

Archaeologists in Leicester have found evidence of such a penalty on a 1,700-year-old lead tablet invoking the god Maglus to destroy a humble cloak thief.

The tablet, found on Vine Street during the most extensive archaeological excavations ever made in the city, was translated by a specialist at Oxford University and reads:

“To the god Maglus, I give the wrongdoer who stole the cloak of Severandus … that he destroy him before the ninth day, the person who stole the cloak of Severandus …”

A list of 18 or 19 suspects follows – the tablet does not record what happens to them next.

“Curse tablets are known from a number of Roman temple sites in Britain, and are thin rectangular sheets of lead bearing the ‘curse’ inscribed with a point or stylus,” said Richard Buckley, Co-Director of the University of Leicester Archaeological Services.

photo of a large archaeological excavation site in a city centre

Almost 9 per cent of Leicester's historic core was investigated in the recent excavations. Photo University of Leicester Archaeological Services

“They were usually rolled up and were probably nailed to the wall of a temple or shrine," continued Richard. "Most curses seem to relate to thefts and typically the chosen god is asked to do harm to the perpetrator. It has been suggested … that the curses relate to the lives of ordinary people, rather than the wealthy, and that they were perhaps commissioned by the dedicator from a professional curse writer.”

The find is particularly important because before it, archaeologists only knew the names of three or four of the inhabitants of Roman Leicester, and is very well preserved, as it had not been rolled up.

“The curse is a remarkable discovery and at a stroke dramatically increases the number of personal names known from Roman Leicester,” said Richard.

“The name forms will help us to understand the cultural make-up of the population, whilst the subject matter tells us about the spread of spoken Latin and the religious practices of ordinary people.”

Archaeologists from the University of Leicester had been working on several sites in the city over the last three years and almost 9 per cent of Leicester’s historic core was investigated. As well as the curse tablet, many other discoveries were made, giving new insights into its Roman and medieval development.

photo of a man in a hard hat and reflective jacket working at an archaeological dig

As well as the curse tablet many artefacts and buildings from the Roman and medieval periods were found. Photo University of Leicester Archaeological Services

These include the excavation of a substantial 2nd century Roman town house, the discovery of part of the town wall and the discovery of the lost medieval churches of St Peter and St Michael and their graveyards, with the excavation of more than 1,600 burials.

“The recent excavations have been on a scale rarely seen in British cities, and for the first time in Leicester it has been possible to look at large areas of the Roman and medieval town,” added Richard.

“This has made it possible to examine complete buildings and to see how an entire neighbourhood changed over almost 2,000 years.”

A public exhibition of the excavations will take place on December 2 2006 at Leicester’s Jewry Wall Museum. The curse tablet itself is in safe storage although photos of it will be displayed.

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