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More Archaeology of Magic? The Mystery of the Little Thetford ‘Curse Tablets’

Little Thetford is a small village located just south of Ely – it has no connection at all with the Norfolk town of Thetford, and used to be known as Thetford-in-the-Isle – the Isle being, of course, the Isle of Ely. The name may have been changed as a result of the drainage of the waters around Ely, which would once have surrounded the village to east, west and south during the winter months. A couple of months ago I wrote about Dr David Barrowclough’s interesting discoveries at Barway near Soham, which seem to be a rare instance of archaeological evidence for the practice of magic in the medieval or early modern periods. However, the Barway pits may not be the only evidence of this kind in the area.

Lt Thetford map

A map of Little Thetford with Harrimere Drain and the site of Harrimere Chapel marked in red © Google

On Tuesday I happened to meet an experienced metal detectorist in Little Thetford, Dave Fletcher, who has frequently spoken about his finds to the local history society, as well as sharing them with the Portable Antiquities Scheme and consulting with academic archaeologists. One of Dave’s most remarkable discoveries is a series of 366 small rolls of lead, each between 0.5 and 1cm wide. He discovered many of these near the site of Harrimere or Haveringmere Chapel, a medieval chapel-of-ease between Little Thetford and the river founded in 1381. Convinced that they were curse tablets, he took them to archaeologists who dismissed this interpretation, on the grounds that they were too small, in comparison with the famous lead defixiones found in the spring at Bath. However, they had no alternative identification to offer.

When I saw images of Dave Fletcher’s ‘curse tablets’, I immediately thought of an artefact I saw in December at Stockholm’s Historiska Museet, which was a thin strip of lead dating from around 1400 recovered from a lake and bearing, not a curse, but a prayer to the Virgin Mary. This was adduced by the curators as evidence that the pagan practice of depositing metal items in bodies of water simply carried on in the Middle Ages in modified form. Indeed, a study of runic amulets by Mindy MacLeod and Bernard Mees, Runic Amulets and Magic Objects (Boydell, 2006) is replete with evidence of lead amulets with writing on, both in runes and Latin script, recovered in Nordic countries. Some of these are square or rectangular in form but many more are ‘strips’ or ‘rolls’. Only some of these contain curses: most are leechcraft amulets containing garbled Hebrew inscriptions, nomina ignota and the names of Norse gods and goddesses. These leechcraft practices continued at least until the sixteenth century, especially in Iceland.

The finds database of the Portable Antiquities Scheme currently includes 25 sets of probable curse tablets, and it is curious that in every case the finds officer classified them as ‘Roman curse tablets’. In some cases, where they were found alongside other definitely Roman objects, this may be justified; but in other cases I suspect that there is simply a belief amongst archaeologists that rolled up bits of lead are a Roman phenomenon. Furthermore, as the examples of Scandinavian leechcraft amulets show, it cannot be assumed that inscriptions on lead served a malefic purpose. Lead was simply a fairly cheap material, soft enough to write on with a stylus and then roll up, which would last permanently. Examples of lead amulets from the Middle Ages have been found in Austria, and it is not much of a stretch to imagine that Scandinavians settling in England after the Viking conquest of the Kingdom of East Anglia in the ninth century would have employed many of the same ritual practices they did at home.

The evidence for lead amulets in magic in England is ambiguous at best: Roberta Gilchrist has pointed to the grave of a woman excavated at St James, Bristol, a small rectangular package made of lead enclosed what may once have been parchment. Other graves also contained fragments of lead, but not enough to be certain that they were written on or served any magical purpose. But I suspect that the main reason such practices are unattested in Britain is that many archaeologists are unfamiliar with the Scandinavian evidence and assume that curse tablets must be a Roman feature. None of the Little Thetford ‘curse tablets’ have been opened, but I should be intrigued to find out what may lie inside. I strongly suspect that they are medieval in date, and probably contained healing charms rather than curses.

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This entry was posted on May 21, 2015 by .
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