October 31, 2011

Unveiling an ancient Roman curse to celebrate Halloween

The Johns Hopkins Archaeological Museum is celebrating Halloween by unveiling a recently conserved 2,000-year-old Roman curse tablet, which spells out an anonymous plea for the grisly demise of a slave named Plotius. It is one of five tablets that have been part of the university’s collection since 1908, when graduate student William Sherwood Fox began the painstaking process of studying and deciphering the lead tablets.

Plotius’ curse “was found rolled together with four others and pierced through by an iron nail,” according to Elisabeth Schwinge, a graduate student in the interdepartmental program in Classical Art and Archaeology, which is based in the Krieger School’s Classics Department. “The Latin name for a curse is defixio, which means ‘to pin down.’” The individual tablets are stand-ins for the cursed people, with the nail symbolizing their pinning down, Schwinge said.

No one knows what Plotius did to invite someone to implore the gods to summon “the triple-headed hound to snatch away [his] heart,” or to plague him with fevers so intense that they “overcome him to the point where they snatch away his soul.” And no one knows who placed the curse on poor Plotius; while the cursed person had to be identified very carefully, the identity of the person placing the curse was just as carefully concealed out of fear of retribution. But Plotius’ curse is now visible, in part due to the recent conservation work of the tablet by Sanchita Balachandran, the museum’s curator and conservator.

Schwinge and Balachandran will be offering their insight into the Plotius tablet during two short talks starting at 12:15 p.m. today, Oct. 31, in the museum, which is in Room 150 of Homewood’s Gilman Hall. The curse will also be on view for the remainder of the semester.

For a sneak peak at the tablet, go to the museum’s website at tinyurl.com/6x9arbx.