Unique Roman prayer tablet goes on display

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 by Antony Lee  | Category: Archaeology 
  • West Deeping 'uterine phylactery'

    West Deeping 'uterine phylactery'

The 1994 excavations at the Roman villa site at West Deeping produced a wealth of information about life in late Roman Lincolnshire.  Two of the most intriguing finds were two small pieces of rolled lead.  When unrolled in the laboratory, one turned out to be blank but the other contained something unique and fascinating.

Excavations at Roman temple sites have produced many similar tablets.  They often contain handwritten prayers to the gods, or curses against those who have wronged the author.  Curse tablets are known as 'defixio', prayer tablets as 'phylacteries'.  As this one specifically relates to pregnancy, it is a 'uterine phylactery'.

Although found at a villa site rather than a temple, the thirteen lines of handwritten Latin scratched onto the surface of the West Deeping tablet contain a prayer intended to protect a pregnant loved one.  The inscription is fragmentary, but Roman writing expert Roger Tomlin has been able to translate it as:

‘Womb, I say to you, stay in your place [. . .] has given to you. I adjure you by Iao, and by Sabao and by
Adonai, not to hold onto the side; but stay in your place, and not to hurt Cleuomedes daughter of A[. . .].’

The prayer was therefore written to protect a woman called Cleuomedes, who presumably resided at West Deeping.  The pleading with the womb to 'stay in its place' and 'not hold on to the side' offer a fascinating glimpse into ancient Greek and Roman medical beliefs.  They thought that the womb was effectively a living creature which had the ability to move around the woman's body at will, potentially causing her harm.  The desire for it to not hold on to the side seems to be to prevent what we would call a uterine prolapse.  The Gods being invoked - Iao, Sabao and Adonai - were the standard deities invoked for such reasons. 

What makes this tablet unique is that it is written in Latin.  All other known examples of such prayer tablets have been written in Greek.  The type of Latin used suggests that the tablet dates to the fourth century AD.

The tablet is now on display in the Roman section of the museum's archaeology gallery, which of course is free to enter!


I wonder why pleading to the womb ‘stay in its place and not hold to the side ‘has to be interpreted as “they thought that the womb was effectively a living creature etc.”  isn’t a prolapsed uterus, or many other possible medical complications, a good-enough reason to evoke such a request ??


Iao, Sabao and Adonai were all names referring to the God of Israel so only one God is invoked.

Mark Rudningen

Aren’t all those theophoric references actually Hebrew ones? Why is that the case?

Joe in Australia

Interesting indeed. The name Cleuomedes also sounds rather Greek than Latin - maybe whoever wrote this for her on purpose used a Greek tradition, transposed into Latin. Iao, Sabao(th) and Adonai are of course originally Jewish names for god, but by the time this phylactery was written, they had been fully incorporated within the magic tradition of the Greek-speaking world already for some centuries.

Alexandra von Lieven

‘not holding to the side’ doesn’t sound like prolapse to me - that would be ‘not to go down/out’ - so I think this is a general reference to the womb’s ability to shift position rather than to that. I assume you take the ‘living creature’ reference from Aretaeus but movement can be mechanical (too hot/dry) rather than because the womb is sentient, I think

Helen King

Why the assumption that Cleuomedes was *pregnant*? This is a fairly standard charm against uterine movement, a condition thought more commonly to afflict virgins and widows.

Monica Green

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