Thursday, December 14, 2006

Of Curses and Kings

“You scoundrel, you have wronged me,” hissed the philosopher. “May you live forever!” ~ Ambrose Bierce


I swear that more Roman artifacts are found in England than in Rome and greater Italy. A recent find is one of those homely little items that connects us with the people of the past, not just the events. In Leicester, England, a “curse tablet” has been found. This is not to be confused with a letter full of curses, which I documented some time ago. As you may recall, one of the letters involved a woman who was scolding someone over a debt. The language was strong enough that the team that discovered it did not publicly release the complete translation for fear of offending the sensibilities of the general public.

As I said at the time, that's such a disappointment because cursing is in such a rut these days that we could use some imaginative foul language.

The curse tablet, on the other hand, has been completely translated. It said:
To the god Maglus, I give the wrongdoer who stole the cloak of Servandus. Silvester, Roimandus that he destroy him before the ninth day, the person who stole the cloak of Servandus.
This supplication is followed by a list of 18 or 19 suspects. Evidently Servandus wasn't into doing extensive detective work; he also wasn't very popular if there was a platoon of people who would gleefully walk off with his cloak.

You've got to admire the simplicity of this curse. “Hey, Maglus, kill the creep who copped my wrap.” Nothing very flowery about Servandus.

This find is the sort of thing that reminds us that people have been people a long time. Some Roman postcards were found some years ago in England. One asked someone to send socks (very handy apparel for a Roman in the chilly north of Britain); another invited a friend to a party. It's one thing to talk of Julius Caesar and Hadrian, mighty leaders of empire whose minions ranged across the world. It's another thing to find that one of those minions wrote home for socks. I can relate to the guy writing about the socks far more readily than I can to Hadrian.

Curse tablets, according to the article, were the sort of thing that ordinary folks used, the wealthy being able to call on the local priesthood (with an appropriate donation) to personally appeal to the gods in their favor. For someone in the working classes, like Servandus, the curse tablet was his main method of appealing to the gods for help. For a working man, the loss of a cloak was a serious loss. No wonder Servandus wanted blood.

Servandus' curse turns out to be more informative than one might expect. His role call of suspects includes Roman and Celtic names, giving archaeologists an idea about the makeup of the population in Leicester 1700 years ago. Many people have an image of the Romans marching into Britain, taking the all the Celts prisoner and sending them back to Rome as slaves. While this happened at times, particularly when local groups rebelled against the occupation, over time the Celts and Romans came to live together, with the locals benefiting from Roman civilization. When the Romans left, the Celts, in many cases, simply took over many of the cities, some of which are major centers today.

But my mind keeps drifting back to Servandus. I wonder if his curse got any action. Probably not, which leads us to wonder if he composed a new one with more names on it. I guess it depends on how many people Servandus thought disliked him.

Closing the Tut Case

A report was delivered at the annual meeting of the Radiological Society of North America that made official the results of a CT scan performed on King Tutankhamen. I am presuming this report was based on the scans taken some months ago in Egypt under the watchful eye of Zahi Hawass. Mr. Hawass was determined to try to find the actual cause of death of the Boy King once and for all.

It has been very popular over the years to ascribe Tut's demise to the machinations of trusted associates or even his wife. The Discovery Axis even enlisted a couple of private eyes to ride back and forth in a jeep in Egypt (or at least it looked like Egypt) for a couple of hours concocting a theory of how Tut was done in. They rehashed a bunch of old canards, finally coming up with a plot by Ay to bash Tut in the head so he could take over.

Sorry, guys. It just didn't happen that way. The simple fact was that Tut's skull never clearly showed the kind of damage a whack on the skull would produce. The CT scan verified that any bone fragments and minor damage to Tut's head came most likely came from the embalming process. Other breaks in his bones most likely came from his brute-force removal from the resins hardened in his coffin by Howard Carter and his associates. The same could not be said of his legs.

It seems that Tut suffered a grievous fracture to his leg. That the fracture occurred before death is certain as embalming resins covered the margins of the break, something that would indicate a compound fracture that broke the skin. People often died in the past from serious breaks. Infection would set in, which could lead to pneumonia, gangrene, or organ failure, and it could happen quickly.

One scenario has Tut being thrown from a chariot, perhaps while hunting. His tomb shows pictures of him riding his chariot in hunts and in battle, although the latter is less likely. Had Tut suffered such an injury, his likelihood of survival would not have been high.
It's entirely possible he died well away from his capitol. In that case, the heat of Egypt would have led to rapid degradation of the corpse, which might well explain the hurried burial. It may even explain why so much resin was poured into the coffin, an attempt, perhaps, to keep the body intact for the afterlife. Or its possible that the embalmers simply did a lousy job. Not all mummifications are equally successful.

Of course, there are those who will still search for conspiracies, no matter how much evidence is presented to the contrary. But, given the results of this scan, it would appear that the Tut murder case should be closed with a verdict of accidental death.

And I'll bet you thought I was going to tie up "curse tablets" with the "curse" of Tutankhamen. Fooled you, didn't I?

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