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Creating the Curse : plumbing the depths

In Britain curses were addressed to gods housed in rural and urban shrines, for example Mercury at Uley (see Uley introduction) Mars Nodens at Lydney (see Lydney introduction) and Sulis Minerva at Bath. The temple, fanum (Uley 2) or templu (Lydney), is usually specified by the curse as the place to which stolen property is to be returned. Most temples are of the 'Romano-Celtic' type, with a central shrine (cella) enclosed by an ambulatory (covered walkway) (see Uley temple). The classical form of Sulis Minerva's temple at Bath, set on a podium and entered from a columned porch is more familiar from Rome’s Mediterranean provinces.

Tablets were commonly deposited in locations where the gods alone could read them. The Uley tablets were found scattered across the ruins of the sanctuary (see Uley cult and curses), but had probably been deposited in a pool at the centre of the shrine which was later emptied. At Bath the tablets were found in the reservoir fed by the sacred spring, in the courtyard that surrounded the temple. This reservoir supplied the hot baths but also became the focus for offerings. Other wet places in which curses were placed include rivers: a tablet dedicated to Neptune was dropped in the Hamble (see Sites - other tablets), Hampshire. Tablets have also been found in the drain of the bathhouse at Leintwardine (see Leintwardine), Herefordshire.

In Mediterranean provinces of the Roman world curses are also found buried in graves. They have sometimes been pushed down the libation pipe, a misuse of the tube intended to feed liquid offerings to the dead at funerary picnics. The graves of the prematurely dead or those who died violently were especially favoured. They were engaged either as infernal messengers to deliver tablets to infernal deities or were themselves requested to carry out the terms of the curse. In Britain this is very rarely documented. Instead tablets were deposited in the same place as other religious dedications, more an element of mainstream ritual rather than a shameful act of magic.

In North Africa, the near East and Rome many tablets have been discovered in association with circuses and amphitheatres (see Circus and court, sex and stealing). The locations chosen to place the tablet were designed to enhance the effect of the curse, for example the most dangerous points of the racing circuit, such as the starting gates or turning posts, or cemeteries close by where the services of the dead could be engaged. Curse tablets have been found in Britain in association with amphitheatres at London and Caerleon. The Caerleon tablet was addressed to Nemesis (Caerleon). This tablet was nailed up for a human as well as divine readership.

Tablets could also be buried within houses and shops. The account of the death of Germanicus is matched by archaeological discoveries. The excavation of 60 fourth-century tablets in a well in the courtyard of governor’s house at Caesarea Maritima represents one of the most spectacular recent finds of curses.

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