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Creating the Curse : materials and manufacture

Curses were usually inscribed with a stylus on lead tablets, although other materials, including wooden writing tablets, papyri and stone, could also bear them. The preference for lead perhaps originates in its use as a general material for documents in fifth century Greece. In some parts of the ancient world where cursing was extremely popular, classical Attica and Roman Britain, lead was also plentiful. The metal also possessed symbolic attributes which were identified as especially suitable for cursing. Its heaviness, coldness, and colour were suitable for the sympathetic (see People, goods and gods - the workings of magic) operation of the curse, since such attributes could be transferred to the individual cursed. One recipe for the making of curse tablets required lead from the pipe of an aqueduct, suitable because of the cold water that had flowed through it.

In practice, ‘lead’ was not always lead. The Bath tablets are better described as pewter, given their high tin content identified by metallurgical analysis. The proportion of different metals in the alloy mixture also varied greatly, suggesting that tablets were not made in batches but ad hoc when required, perhaps by craftspeople who made pewter vessels, an industry of which Bath was a centre.

Some tablets were cut from lead sheets that were hammered or cast very thin and trimmed with a knife to produce a flat even rectangular tablet. Others were occasionally cut in the form of tabulae ansatae (‘handled panels’), a common setting for stone inscriptions (see Caerleon). A curse from Bath was written on a pewter plate. Beyond Britain tablets have also been found in the shape of human figures or, in one instance, of racehorses, representing the targets of the curse. The majority of the Uley tablets however are irregular shaped pieces of lead, crudely hammered out to form an uneven writing surface. Generally tablets do not measure more than c. 12 x 8 cm, although occasional examples are much larger. Texts are usually written on one side only, either along the short or long axes of the tablets.

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