finding and conserving | reading and imaging

Curses Recovered: reading and imaging

Curse tablets first came to scholarly attention in the late 18th and early 19th centuries. The Lydney tablet, found in 1805, is the earliest recorded find from Britain. Ever since, scholars have been reading and publishing the tablets from individual excavations and collecting corpora of curses from different sites. Until recently however curses have been neglected in relation to other categories of text. Classicists of the 19th and early 20th century worlds could often not easily reconcile the content of curses with the elevated position of Greek and Roman philosophical, literary and practical achievements as models for modern societies, embedded in school and university syllabuses. Scholars were repelled too by the intrinsic difficulties of reading the tablets, by their scripts and language, by the 'gibberish' and magical manipulation of the text, and by the corroded or fragmentary condition in which they often survive. The difficulty is illustrated by the initial publication of one of the first curses to be discovered at Bath, based on reading the tablet upside down.

Advances in reading curse tablets have been prompted by a new interest in the diversity of the ancient world. Curses give us the words of individuals pushed to the margins by the concerns of the literary texts, such as women, provincials, and slaves. Larger groups of texts are also now available to work on, generating a greater familiarity with scripts, language and subject matter.

Scholars read the text both directly from the tablets themselves and from photographs taken of the tablet raked by a low light from a series of angles to reveal the incisions. The incisions identified by the examination of the originals or photographs are then represented as measured line drawings. A 'diplomatic' transcript reproduces the text as it appears on the tablet and a reconstruction of the Latin text introduces word division and punctuation and renders magical transpositions (see People, goods and gods - the workings of magic) into recognisable Latin text.

Digital technology too is having an impact on the reading and publication of curses. Photographs of the tablets can now be complemented by digital techniques. High resolution and high quality digital images allow close-up scrutiny. Images can also be manipulated to bring out the contrasts of light and shade and images photographed from different angles can be combined to map incisions revealed by the play of light and shadow across the tablet.

The expense constraints of conventional publication also make it difficult to offer readers more than one photograph. Since a single photograph only shows parts of individual letters, it is difficult to assess the reliability of the drawing on which the tablet text is based. Web presentation, without such constraints, can make a full set of views of the tablets available. Curses were originally for the god's eyes alone, but digital publication can disseminate them more widely and allow as full as possible a group of users to study the ancient world through their evidence.

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