Bryn Mawr Classical Review

BMCR 2014.06.36 on the BMCR blog

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2014.06.36

Andrew T. Wilburn, Materia Magica: The Archaeology of Magic in Roman Egypt, Cyprus, and Spain. New texts from ancient cultures.   Ann Arbor:  University of Michigan Press, 2012.  Pp. xvi, 342; 18 p. of plates.  ISBN 9780472117796.  $80.00.  

Reviewed by Pauline Ripat, University of Winnipeg (


Literary descriptions of witches’ activities and the recipes contained within handbooks such as the Greek Magical Papyri (PGM) suggest that in the ancient mind, undertaking magic required the right “stuff”, the right place, and the right time, in addition to the right words and actions. This is ubiquitously recognized in modern scholarship. However, in the pursuit of practices that might be termed “magic”, words (and to a lesser extent, actions) have garnered more interest than the physical constellations that were surely also of supreme importance to the ancient practitioner. Modern interest in the diagnostic potential of formulas has furthermore encouraged consideration of evidence within a panhellenic or empire-wide framework.1 In contrast, Wilburn’s work (which is based on his dissertation) seeks to put the material aspects at center stage in order to illuminate ancient magical practice as it was undertaken on a local level. The book is divided into six chapters that are followed by two appendices and 25 plates (photographs, maps, and site plans). At its core are three case studies of materials from three locations: Karanis in Egypt, Amathous in Cyprus, and Empúries in Spain.

The book opens with an anecdotal introduction describing the value of the archaeological context for the interpretation of one of the so-called “Sethian” curse tablets from Rome. Wilburn then proceeds to lay out his formal methodology in two chapters (“Finding Magic in the Archaeological Record” and “Materia Magica”). Looking for archaeological evidence of magic requires a clear sense of what one is looking for. Unlike investigations of magic in text and literature, the characteristics of magic here must be identifiable in the physical record. Wilburn provides a working definition of “magic” that he notes is not intended to be universal (pp. 15-16): (1) “magic” involves ritual including objects, action, and words; (2) it may borrow from religious tradition; (3) it is undertaken for private or personal reasons although possibly within a public context. Discussion turns to the usefulness and limits of textual comparanda. The ubiquity of magic in literature is not reflected in the physical record, perhaps because of preference for materials prone to decomposition and the desirability of secrecy, and instructions in handbooks and rituals undertaken in fact do not mirror each other precisely. Focus on the physical record allows for unique and enlightening emphasis to fall upon critical moments in an object’s “biography”, particularly the point when it may have been purposefully and ritually removed from further use, and the context of discovery (e.g., mortuary) is a critical consideration in the identification of purposeful deposition. From here, Wilburn, guided by literary evidence and magical recipes, provides exhaustive discussion of the specific kinds of artifacts whose nature identify them as “potentially magical” (p. 55) when discovered in significant contexts: objects inscribed with significant words or symbols; images or figurines; organic matter including body parts; and household objects, such as pins, that could figure in magical ritual.

With the framework established, Wilburn proceeds to his three case studies, each in its own chapter. Chapter Three (“Identifying the Remains of Magic in the Village of Karanis”), along with its two associated appendices, mainly considers two previously published individual artifacts (a papyrus amulet against fever and an ostracon that appears to contain part of a recipe for a magical spell),2 an assemblage comprising a doll and three hairpins found beneath the floor of a house (the focus of a previous article by Wilburn),3 and one previously unpublished, sizable group of 84 bones (animal, save 3 human skull bones) painted with squiggles, stripes, or dots. Wilburn describes the physical nature and findspots of each, and assesses them in the light of recipes from the PGM. He concludes that the amulet provides more evidence for Christians at Karanis in the fourth century CE; the ostrakon represents a magical attempt to invoke the protective powers of Horus over grain storage; the sub-floor assemblage is the remains of an erotic spell; and the bones may point to divinatory practice, malevolent magic, or protective rites for domesticated animals. Consideration of the possible social identities of the creators and manipulators of the artifacts under discussion finishes off the chapter.

The next chapter (“Practitioners and Craft and Amathous, Cyprus”) turns to a cache of over 200 tablets of lead and 30 of selenite, each inscribed with a curse, found in a deep shaft beneath a layer of human bones in the ancient town of Amathous. Of these, only 16 of the lead tablets and six of the selenite have been published, but Wilburn, depending upon the authority of David Jordan (p. 187 with references), suggests that these are likely to be formulaically representative of the remainder. The published tablets indicate that in the main, only three different formulas were used, albeit by a number of different hands. A number of discussions and conclusions fan off from these observations. After detailing the stratigraphy of the shaft and textual contents and peculiarities of the published tablets, Wilburn suggests that these tablets fit most comfortably into Hendrik Versnel’s “border area” between binding spell and prayer for justice; they perhaps reflect the presence of a collective of ritual specialists focused on a temple or shrine that served the personal religious needs of the local population; and two tablets, DT 25 and 26, cursing a man named Theodoros who has been interpreted since the tablets’ first publication to be the provincial governor, point to resistance against Roman authority.

Attention turns to Hispania Citerior for the final case study (“Three Curses from Empúries and Their Social Implications”). Wilburn considers three previously published, first century CE curse tablets that were discovered with human remains in three separate cinerary urns (cremations 21, 22, and 23) within the same enclosure at the Ballesta necropolis.4 He argues that the tablets were deposited at the same time as the remains, a practice that was perhaps not the norm, but which was not unheard of elsewhere. The tablets themselves target members of the Roman administration, possibly stemming from redistribution of land (pp. 237-238), and “should be viewed as resistance to imperial control” (p. 246). The likelihood that their deposition was relatively public may point to feelings of justified indignation on the part of their creators and perhaps also that a certain degree of communal knowledge was the motor that made magic “work”.

The final chapter (“The Archaeology of Magic”) reiterates the problems encountered when looking for evidence of magical practice in the physical record. These range from the difficulty of escaping Malinowski’s “coefficient of weirdness” as an identifying feature, despite the recognition that “weirdness” is culturally specific, to the lack of sound record-keeping habits until relatively recently. It recaps recurrent themes such as the nature of “private” when it comes to magical acts, the possible identity of ritual specialists, and the role that texts might have played in the transformation of local heterogeneity of practice to widespread homogeneity in the second century CE.

Wilburn’s research is admirably comprehensive, but his argument is not always tight. Most problematic is not his definition of “magic” (although individual readers may disagree with it), but rather its lack of clear deployment in the process of detection. Wilburn’s aim is not to interrogate the validity of the category of “magic”, nor does he attempt to; his aim is instead to discuss its manifestations. However, the identification of an object as the residue of magical ritual is less often based on the explicit invocation of the three criteria Wilburn has set himself in Chapter One than on similarities offered by textual evidence that is itself generally accepted to be “magical” (see especially pp. 169-170, where Wilburn doubts that his three criteria are sufficient and dependence upon text is therefore necessary).5 Indeed, despite frequent assertions of the potential of material remains to illuminate understanding of ritual and social setting, the physical context, although described meticulously, frequently yields to textual comparanda, even to the point that the treatment of material context can sometimes seem selective. For example, the beads and two ostraka (p. 132) discovered alongside the doll and pins that form a focus of Chapter Three receive remarkably little attention – perhaps because they, unlike the doll and the pins, do not present easy comparisons with magical recipes. Therefore, when Wilburn asserts that “[t]he study of local forms of magic in antiquity must struggle constantly with the tension between our expectations of what magic should look like and the reality of magical practice in a specific community or village, which could be vastly different” (p. 256), the statement seems unwittingly self-censuring, despite his splendidly detailed discussion of the differences between text and hard evidence. The result for the reader is that the theoretical structure of his discussion can strike as elusive or internally contradictory, and his findings are somewhat less revelatory than might have been hoped, or less disruptive to established lines of thinking than might have been expected.

At the same time, there is much to appreciate about Wilburn’s work. Questions he raises, for example, about the relationship of curse tablet deposition to funerary ritual over time and in different places are interesting and speak to the potential that studies of local ritual practice have to expand our understanding of obligation and power relations within the family and community. The employment of physical and textual evidence to attempt to investigate the identity of ritual specialists is suggestive. Wilburn’s knowledge of scholarship bearing on the objects he treats is extensive and well documented, and he provides an excellent resource for anyone interested not only in the particular objects he discusses but in the kinds of objects he discusses. At the same time, he adopts some points of cultural comparison (for example, evidence of “conjure” in North America, p. 36) that are refreshingly novel in current scholarship. It of course goes without saying that the publication of the bones from Karanis, complete with several plates of images, is very valuable. For all of these reasons, this book is a useful addition to the current complement of scholarship on the perpetually contested subject of “magic”.


1.   E.g. H. S. Versnel (2010) “Prayers for Justice East and West: New Finds and Publications since 1990.” In Magical Practice in the Latin West. Edited by R. Gordon and F. Marco Simón. Leiden and Boston: Brill, 275-354. For encouragement to consider the local, see R. Gordon and F. Marco Simón (2010) “Introduction.” In Magical Practice in the Latin West. Edited by R. Gordon and F. Marco Simón. Leiden and Boston: Brill, 29.
2.   Fever amulet: W. Brashear P.Mich. XVIII 768; ostracon: H.C. Youtie (1976) “Ostraca from Karanis.” ZPE 16: 274.
3.   A. T. Wilburn (2007) “Excavating Love Magic and Roman Karanis.” In New Archaeological and Papyrological Researches on the Fayyum. Edited by M. Capasso and P. Davoli. Galatina (Lecce): Congedo, 355-70.
4.   Recently also treated by F. Marco Simón (2010) “Execrating the Roman Power: Three defixiones from Emporiae (Ampurias).” In Magical Practice in the Latin West. Edited by R. Gordon and F. Marco Simón. Leiden and Boston: Brill, 399-423.
5.   See J. Webster (2008) “Less Beloved. Roman Archaeology, Slavery, and the Failure to Compare.” Archaeological Dialogues 15.2:103-23 for an interesting discussion of the relationship between artifact and text and for methodological contrast.

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