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Why were 50 curse tablets buried at the headquarters of the Roman governor of Judea?


Fragments of lead curse tablets found at Caesarea (Courtesy University of Pennsylvania)

More than 50 Roman-era curse tablets have been found in a well at the ruins of King Herod's palace at Caesarea Maritima. The well is thought to date to sometime after the 1st century A.D., when the palace served as headquarters of the Roman governor of Judea. The tablets, the largest single collection ever found in Israel, were discovered by a University of Pennsylvania team led by Kathryn Gleason and Barbara Burrell. Made of soft lead and inscribed with enemies' names, tablets of this type were usually placed in wells or graves where, it was believed, spirits of underworld gods or dead would activate the curses. Burrell speculates that many of the tablets found at Caesarea were intended to influence decisions of the governor's tribunal, believed to have been located in adjacent buildings; some may have been intended to influence the outcome of games at the nearby arena. Decipherment of the tablets by Holt Parker of the University of Cincinnati should clarify the nature of the curses and explain why they were deposited in this particular well. Fragments of lamps and pottery, dice, and coins also found in the well will help date the tablets.

This newsbrief first appeared in ARCHAEOLOGY, March/April 1995, p. 16.