Bath’s Roman curse tablets added to the UNESCO Memory of the World Register

At a ceremony last week in the United Kingdom, the 130 ancient tablets bearing messages from the Roman occupants of Bath seeking revenge from a goddess, which are the only artefacts from Roman Britain, have been added to the UK Memory of the World Register of outstanding documentary heritage, which aims to raise awareness of some of the world’s exceptional archival collections.

The Roman curse tablets represent personal and private prayers of individuals inscribed on small sheets of lead or pewter and cast into the hot springs at Bath, UK. The tablets are believed to range in date from the 2nd to the late 4th century AD. Some are written in Old Roman Cursive and some in New Roman Cursive which was in use from the later 3rd century until the end of Roman rule in Britain. Some messages included magical words and symbols, or were written back to front to increase the curse's potency. Others were pierced with nails to achieve a similar result. Curses were sometimes rolled up and hidden under floors or in wall cavities. People wrote to the Roman goddess Sulis Minerva asking for revenge or for wrongs to be put right. 

UNESCO Deputy Director-General, Getachew Engida, who attended the inscription ceremony in Bath, highlighted in his remarks that in addition to being home to the valuable Roman Curse tablets, Bath’s historic quarters have been inscribed on the World Heritage List since 1987. He further emphasized that the Roman vestiges have remained at the heart of the city’s development since their inception and can be considered to be among the most famous and important Roman remains north of the Alps. In addition, Mr Engida pointed out that it is precisely thanks to the Romans that the city of Bath flourished as a thermal spa since the 1st century AD and the natural hot springs have also made it possible to develop the city into an elegant spa city, famed in literature and art – a tradition that continues to the present. Bath attributes great importance to its status as a World Heritage site and the implementation of the eponymous convention: Bath is also part of a European group of spa cities that is preparing a World Heritage nomination as Great Spas of Europe, together with sites in the Czech Republic, Austria, Belgium, France, Germany and Italy.

The Roman curse tablets offer also an insight into the extent of bilingualism in the British population under Rome. Unlike many classical sources, the tablets do not tell us of the lives of great men and women and are not great works of literature or philosophy. The Roman curse tablets from Bath are the earliest known surviving prayers to a deity in Britain. Some are pretty fierce, like the person who, seeking revenge for theft of a bronze vessel, asks that it be filled with the blood of the thief! Indeed, many of the collections contain surprising facts. The Romans didn't have police, but they did have something else that worked as a deterrent, the fear of the gods.

UNESCO launched the Memory of the World Programme in 1992 to guard against collective amnesia calling upon the preservation of the valuable archive holdings and library collections all over the world ensuring their wide dissemination. The Programme vision is that the world's documentary heritage belongs to all, should be fully preserved and protected for all and, with due recognition of cultural mores and practicalities, should be permanently accessible to all without hindrance. The Programme is thus intended to protect documentary heritage, and to help networks of experts to exchange information and raise resources for the preservation of, and the access to, documentary and archival collections of valuable records.