Technical and Scientific Analysis of the Curse Tablet

Recent research gives us insight into the curse tablet from a technical and scientific point of view.

How Was the Tablet Made?

These drawings show three phases in the creation of a curse tablet: inscribing the text using a stylus on the lead sheet; rolling the text; "fixing" the curse (and the person to be cursed) with an iron nail. Images courtesy of Natasha Jones.

Lead curse tablets were made by rolling out pieces of lead and inscribing it with a sharp pointed tool, generally a stylus.  The lead would have been relatively soft and easy to inscribe.  However, the softness of the metal meant that writing text with the crispness and sharp turns and edges was somewhat difficult. After the text was complete, the pliable lead tablet was rolled with the text facing inwards.  Fox notes:

“In general, the tablets [at Hopkins] were rolled into cylindrical shape with the writing on the inside for protection against abrasion and for concealment from prying eyes;  for, should the writing be injured in any way the formula would be of no effect, or, should human eyes read it, counter formulae might be composed or other means resorted to that might bring the evil of the formula back like a boomerang upon its author.” (Fox, Tabellae Defixionum, 1911:8)

A detail of the top of the Plotius tablet. Evidence of an ancient fold in the tablet is visible just below the number "3" and runs the width of the tablet.

The tablets were then fixed in place using a iron nail which pierced through the thickness of the rolled up bundle and compressed it in the center.  After two thousand years of burial, the originally soft and flexible lead tablets and once intact iron nail were completely corroded.  We do not have any documentation about when the nail was removed from the tablets, and the tablets unrolled, but their completely fragmentary condition in 1908 shows the extent to which these objects had changed since they were originally used.

X-ray Fluorescence Analysis

Recent scientific analysis allows us to understand more about the original composition of the metal used to make the Plotius tablet.  Using a non-destructive scientific technique known as X-ray fluorescence, we were able to analyze a section of the curse tablet to identify some of the elements which comprise the lead alloy.  This kind of analysis involves bombarding the object with an x-ray beam, and causing the atoms in the object to emit x-rays in response; the various energies released by the atoms are detected and collected, giving us a way to gain information about the elemental composition of the object.

XRF analysis on a fragment from the Plotius tablet revealed that the metal alloy consists primarily of lead, with additions of iron and tin. The analysis of the nail shows that it is primarily iron as expected,  with lead and tin also detected, most likely from the tablet itself.

Further Analysis

In 2011 and 2012, biomedical engineering students in Dr. Patricia McGuiggan’s course, Materials Characterization, examined tiny fragments from the curse tablet using additional analytical techniques.  Their findings will be updated on this page once they are finalized.