Of childbirth and curses – a trip to Norwich museum

A short while back I met up with my Granny to go to ‘Roman Empire: Power and People’, a much-publicised exhibition that is stopping off at Norwich Castle Museum as part of its UK tour.

The exhibition was as showy as you might expect, with star artefacts ranging from sculpture from Hadrian and Tiberius’ villas to a child’s stripy sock found in Egypt. The exhibition was also a bit of a diva, so I have no photographs for this blog post – more about why in a minute. First though, I want to say something about a couple of artefacts I saw in the museum and I’d never heard of before – a type of amulet to offer protection during childbirth.

These were sheets of thin gold inscribed with magical writing that had been rolled up like a little scroll to be worn around the neck. This one is from Norwich museum’s own collection; this one reported to the Portable Antiquities Scheme seems to be the one that was in the visiting exhibition.

These amulets very much reminded me of defixiones – curse tablets – that were made of thin sheets of lead (sometimes a bit pewter-ish) with a curse scratched onto them before being rolled up and offered to a god. The idea was to transact a bargain with the god to have vengeance enacted on someone who wronged you – you can read more here about the sorts of things that were stolen and the retributions desired…

Now curse tablets were supposed to work by using a kind of sympathetic magic, with the dark, dull properties of the lead being important, as the writing of the curse was fixed to it – hence ‘defixiones’. So might not the bright gold of the amulets have been intended to have a similar effect?

Not knowing much about the Latin for childbirth, I kept thinking of the Italian phrase ‘dare luce’ – to give light – which is a euphemism for ‘partorire’ – to give birth. So I looked up ‘lux’ in Lewis and Short to find that there is indeed a ‘Lucina, goddess of childbirth. So called as she brings to the light’, who turns up in various places such as in Vergil (‘Lucinae experta labores’, Georgics. 4, 340).

Intrigued, I had a quick look in the library at some of the academic papers and found out that these tablets – which are called lamella – are quite rare, usually associated with Egypt, and seek the help of Apollo for some type of healing. However, Apollo is famously a sun god, so again light comes into it here, albeit with a more general association of healing than the specific link to childbirth. So it seems as though it is all adding up to some sort of slightly complex picture about the tablets’ material being important for similar, sympathetic-magic reasons to that of defixiones.

At about this point I realised that I was haring off after something utterly irrelevant to my PhD research – always a hazard when you find what you study is so interesting – and so I reluctantly closed the books. If anyone has studied this aspect of these tablets and can tell me more – then I’d be really interested to hear about it.


Although I had a great day out with my Granny, there was one sour note. I’d wanted to photograph with my phone camera some of the epigraphic monuments and statuary on display in the exhibition of loaned artefacts. This can be done without being obnoxious, getting in the way of other visitors, or use of flash (which could damage some exhibits and so is out of the question for me). However, I was politely stopped, and told that photography was not allowed “for reasons of copyright” and that this was because they would not be able to sell any catalogues in the shop.

Well, it beats me how a 1900-year old anything can be subject to copyright, but I forebore – and forebore from buying anything exhibition-related from the shop (although a book on the development of Norwich by John Davies, the Museum’s own curator was irresistible). I also can’t see how stopping any interested member of the public from taking a few pictures helps the museum fulfil its duties towards the public – who, after all, pay our taxes for its upkeep.

I’ve put this as a post script, as the exhibition and the regular collections at Norwich museum were thought-provoking, and it was a great day out. It was just a shame that taking a few pictures was such an issue.

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