One, a small irregular rectangle cut from sheet lead and identified as a ‘curse’, was found in the fill of one of the drains, in use between AD160-250, within the arena. Unusually this example had not been folded.
Curse tablets were a way of sending a message to the gods seeking favour from them in return for vengeance. They were either directed against person or persons unknown or actually named the culprits.
The named people were cursed either by citing their names or, more potently, writing their names back to front. Lead was the preferred material. The Latin word for a curse was defixio and was intended that the person cursed should be ‘fixed’ in his evil fate. To achieve this, tablets were nailed to shrines or folded or rolled into cylinders before dropping them into sacred waters.
The tablet of lead was inscribed on one side in capital letters. In translation it tells us that ‘I give to the goddess Diana my headgear and scarf less one-third. If anyone has done this, I give him, and through me let him be unable to live’.
It is not known whether it is significant that it was found in the amphitheatre but curses were sometimes buried with the dead or at amphitheatres which were regarded as haunted places.
Some curses were aimed at gladiators and sportsmen but we can not be certain that the ‘head gear and scarf’ in question were part of a costume for a participant in the arena.
A second curse also from the amphitheatre had a short inscription which, although illegible, may have been the name of a gladiator. When opened it revealed the nail holes when it would have been nailed up. The third possible curse has been left in its folded state.
Particularly common in Britain, lead curses were issued to ensure the return of stolen property. This example seems to be the first curse tablet addressed to the goddess Diana, certainly the first from Britain and is the first written evidence of her cult from London.
The curse inscription has been deciphered and published by Dr Roger Tomlin of Oxford University and appears in Britannia Volume XXXIV (2003).