Curse tablets on UNESCO register

The Deputy Director of UNESCO, Mr Getachew Engida, was guest of honour at a special event in to celebrate the inclusion of the city’s Roman curse tablets in the organisation’s UK Memory of the World register of outstanding documentary heritage.

Mr Stephen Clews, Roman Baths Manager, receiving the award from Mr Getachew Engida, Deputy Director General of UNESCO, watched by Elizabeth Oxborrow-Cowan of UNESCO UK.
Mr Stephen Clews, Roman Baths Manager, receiving the award from Mr Getachew Engida, Deputy Director General of UNESCO, watched by Elizabeth Oxborrow-Cowan of UNESCO UK.

An awards ceremony was organised by Bath and North East Somerset Council and held at the Roman Baths

Councillor Ben Stevens, the Council’s Cabinet member for Sustainable Development (Lib-Dem, Widcombe) said: “It is a significant accolade to have the curse tablets included on the UNESCO register. We thank Mr Engida for joining us and for his kind words acknowledging the great job that the city is doing in preserving our heritage.

The tablets are the voice of ordinary Bath citizens from the past and it is remarkable that through these survivals we can better understand the everyday lives of our ancestors.”

The 130 Roman curse tablets from Bath are now the oldest archive and the only one from Roman Britain on the UNESCO UK register. They are one of nine new inscriptions to the register which now contains 41 archival sources from the UK.

The tablets were recovered during archaeological excavations in 1880 and 1979/80 and are on display at The Roman Baths, which is managed by Bath & North East Somerset Council.

Examining real lead curses from the Roman Baths collection.
Examining real lead curses from the Roman Baths collection

The tablets are messages in Latin inscribed on lead or pewter to the Roman goddess Sulis Minerva and are Britain’s earliest known prayers. They were folded or rolled and thrown into the Sacred Spring at the heart of the Roman Baths site. Their contents were intended only for the eyes of the Goddess.

They are mostly from people who had suffered an injustice, asking for wrongs to be put right and for revenge. They can be quite fierce in tone and reveal the anger felt by ordinary people at the loss of what seem to us like modest everyday items, but which were very important to people who at the time had few personal possessions.

Representatives from other successful UK applicants to the register alongside leading national academics who were responsible for excavating and translating the curses, plus many local Discovery Card holders who applied for an invitation, attended the celebration and awards evening.

UNESCO established the Memory of the World Programme in 1992. The programme vision is that the world’s documentary heritage belongs to all, should be fully preserved and protected and permanently accessible to all.