BMCR 2020.04.18

Material approaches to Roman magic: occult objects and supernatural substances

, , Material approaches to Roman magic: occult objects and supernatural substances. TRAC Themes in Roman archaeology, 2. Oxford: Oxbow, 2018. 135 p.; 7 p. of plates. ISBN 9781785708817 £40.00.

[The Table of Contents is listed at the end of the review.]

This second volume in the thematic series TRAC Themes in Roman Archaeology by Parker and McKie deals with an understudied area of Roman archaeology, the material culture involved in magic and related practices. It brings together scholars from across Europe and beyond, and whilst much of the material studied is from Roman Britain, material from Italy and Egypt, and a collection in Israel are also discussed. The volume stems from a conference session; however, the editors’ introduction and Dasen’s concluding chapter extend the discussion on this topic. The contributions come not just from academic professionals but from those working in commercial archaeology and museums, as well as postgraduate students. This sort of collaborative working across the broader archaeological sector is happening more and more and is a welcome development. Research does not take place merely in universities, as these papers demonstrate.

The introduction will act as a source of reference for those seeking an understanding of the state of studies of magic in the Roman world and is a well referenced summary of this complicated issue. It states the aims of the volume as being to investigate the manifestation of magical beliefs and practices in the Roman world, and to champion the role of material culture as evidence for ancient magical practices. The next ten papers are presented thematically, split across those focussing on specific object types used in magical practices across the Roman world, those looking at the influences of Roman magical practices, and the final two emphasising the importance of context, both temporal and physical when studying objects in relation to magic. All of the papers have at their heart material culture, used alongside a combination of literary sources, theoretical approaches, and anthropological comparisons. Many of the papers make use of the PGM (Betz 1992), and it would have perhaps been useful for the introduction chapter to explain what this is (for the non-specialist audience). A point to note also is that most authors use a slightly different definition of magic, and Parker and McKie explain why they did not insist on standardisation, namely that there is no standard understanding or definition of what constitutes magic from the ancient world.

Curse tablets are a well-known item from the Roman world, and the examples from Bath in Britain have been the focus of much study. Sánchez Natalías’ paper takes a different angle however, considering the link between the spell, or curse, and the material upon which it is written. Her study appears to show that in cases where material other than lead was used, thought was given to the media upon which the spell was written.

A visit to any museum with Roman small finds will invariably reveal at least one phallic item. Whitmore considers phallic pendants in particular and uses an interesting modern analogy, namely, Thai phallic pendants, palad khik. These objects are strongly associated with one group of the population, namely, pre-pubescent male children, as protection from physical harm. However, they are used by other people, to whom the pendants offer a different power. Whitmore uses this modern item to highlight the varied meanings which can be ascribed to an item, in addition to the ‘accepted’ or ‘official’ meaning. It is an interesting comparison, reminding us of humans’ tendency to use things for purposes other than their intended use. We don’t always follow the rules!

Amphorae are often the only evidence for their contents remaining for archaeologists, and the small glass vessels studied by Derrick have often been seen in the same way, valued only as containers. Viewing them as everyday items, with fragments found on sites all across the Empire, this paper examines vessels from unusual, or atypical contexts, from Imperial period Italy and Roman Britain. Derricks’ methodology hopes to move beyond treating these vessels simply as carriers for substances, whether magical or not. He looks at the vessels in funerary contexts, in possible protective roles, and in how they were used in beauty, theatre as well as possible vessels for poison.

Sagivs’ paper uses a collection of intaglios from the Israel museum, Jerusalem, to consider their meaning and use as amulets. Each gem is described, and the meaning of the scene discussed, often with comparisons to gems elsewhere, making use of the collection at the Rijksmuseum van Oudheden, Leiden.

Whilst Whitmore studies a very commonly found item, at the other end of the spectrum are the tintinnabula considered by Parker. Yet with both types of object, the erect, or ithyphallic, phallus is the central motif, with the apotropaic value that this gives to an item. The tintinnabula have an additional feature which is thought to have added to their efficacy in warding off evil, the bells. There are no known tintinnabula with a secure Romano-British context, however there are hundreds of bells. Parker discusses the use of sound in magic and ritual, and he looks at the context of just a few of the bells from Roman Britain. He concludes that both the phallic imagery and the component parts of the tintinnabula were present in Roman Britain, so their absence in the archaeological record is not necessarily evidence of their absence.

Amber as a material was recognised in the ancient world as having magical properties, and Davis’ paper gives a good summary of the ancient thoughts and writings on amber. He applies Wilburn’s framework (2012) to define and study magic in two case studies of amber from Roman London. They are very different, with one being simply a lump of amber but with detailed and interesting contextual associations and the other being a beautiful die with no context. The amber die is placed within a discussion of dice of other potentially magical material, such as jet, and dice found in ‘special’ contexts and deposits such as a foundation deposit from Canon Street comprising burnt, broken, and unfinished items. The heating and burning of amber and the additional sensory experience this would provide is discussed.

The Stanway ‘Doctor’s Burial’ is well known and has been previously published, but Garland takes a new angle in looking at this material. He considers how our modern division of magic and medicine affects our study and understanding of the past, where such a division was not so clear cut. This material, of Claudian date, on the cusp of Iron Age and Roman Britain, allows a discussion of the difference between the material from these two periods. The objects in the burial are split between magical and medicinal use, with their life cycles and a range of possible uses for them discussed.

Wilburn takes material from the furthest part of the Empire, with two case studies in the domestic sphere, one from Italy and one from Egypt. The PGM, where it notes a location for the spell/curse, most often notes the domestic sphere. Here Wilburn uses the word ‘ritual’ to include religion, magic and the domestic cult. The two case studies are very different, with a small figurine and bone pin having been hidden under a building, known only to those who buried it, whilst the dog mosaic in the entrance hall at Pompeii was visible to all. Both were placed to have an effect on those who lived in the house, but they acted in different ways.

Using the human body as a basis for his chapter, McKie focuses on gestures of binding and unbinding of the body, using literary and archaeological evidence from Italy and the western Roman provinces. The two categories of material have links to other papers in the volume, curse tablets (Sánchez Natalías) and models of the human body (Wilburn) whilst looking at them in a different light.  Here curse tablets are discussed in relation to the movements and gestures needed for the ritual of creating them, specifically folding, rolling and nailing, as these leave evidence in the archaeological record. However, the PGM offers other gestures such as tying with organic material which have not survived. Binding magic and dolls are closely associated, as shown by the number of spells, though unfortunately dolls survive much more rarely. McKie looks at both the making of the dolls and their use in the spells. These objects offer a case study to show the potential of considering the human body as a magical object.

Dasen’s paper, through the lens of the body and personal agency, brings together the papers, their material and approaches. She uses amulets to look at three aspects of health and the body; coming of age and teething, societal diseases and the female body. Following McKie, she highlights that body language as part of the religious experience is much understudied.

This volume brings together new material previously unpublished (for instance Sagiv), offers new insights on items thought to be fully understood (e.g., Garland), and moves forward the study of magic (Dasen and the Introduction), using a multi-strand approach with material culture at the forefront.  It fits well within the remit of the TRAC Themes in Archaeology series and will be extremely useful to those studying Roman material culture, magic, and ritual.

Table of Contents

 Series Foreword – Sergio Gonzalez Sanchez (TRAC Standing Committee) (p.vii)
1. Introduction – Stuart McKie (University of Manchester) and Adam Parker (Open University) (p.1-8)
2. The Medium Matters: Materiality and Metaphor in Some Latin Curse Tablets – Celia Sánchez Natalías (University of the Basque Country) (p.9-16)
3. Phallic Magic: A Cross Cultural Approach to Roman Phallic Small Finds – Alissa Whitmore (University of Iowa) (p.17-32)
4. Little Bottles of Power: Roman glass unguentaria in Magic, Ritual, and Poisoning – Thomas Derrick (University of Leicester) (p.33-44)
5. Victory of Good over Evil? Amuletic Animal Images on Roman Engraved Gems – Idit Sagiv (Tel-Aviv University) (p.45-56)
6. ‘The Bells! The Bells!’ Approaching Tintinnabulae in Roman Britain and Beyond – Adam Parker (Open University) (p.57-68)
7. Rubbing and Rolling, Burning and Burying: The Magical Use of Amber in Roman London – Glynn Davis (Museum of London) (p.69-84)
8. Linking Magic and Medicine in Early Roman Britain: The ‘Doctor’s’ Burial, Stanway, Camulodunum – Nicky Garland (Newcastle University) (p.85-102)
9. The Archaeology of Ritual in the Domestic Sphere: Case Studies from Karanis and Pompeii – Andrew Wilburn (Oberlin College) (p.103-114)
10. The Legs, Hands, Head and Arms Race: The human body as a magical weapon in the Roman World-  Stuart McKie (University of Manchester) (p.115-126)
11. Conclusion – Veronique Dasen (Universität Freiburg) (p.127-135)


Betz, H. D. (ed.) 1992. The Greek Magical Papyri in Translation (Including the Demotic Spells). 2nd edition. Chicago, IL, London: University of Chicago Press.
Wilburn, A. T. 2012. Materia Magica: The Archaeology of Magic in Roman Egypt, Cyprus and Spain. Ann Arbor, MI: University of Michigan Press.