Dozens of Curse Tablets Found Down a 2,500-year-old Well in Athens

Thirty lead tablets engraved with curses have been discovered at the bottom of a 2,500 year old well in ancient Athens. Discovered in the area of Kerameikos, ancient Athens’ main burial ground, the small tablets invoked the gods of the underworld in order to cause harm to others.

These curses were ritual texts, usually scratched on small lead objects. “The person that ordered a curse is never mentioned by name, only the recipient,” observes Dr. Jutta Stroszeck, director of the Kerameikos excavation on behalf of the German Archaeological Institute in Athens.

Before the discovery of the 30 specimens in the well, dozens of curses from the classical period (480-323 B.C.E.) had been found mainly in tombs of dead people who had died in an untimely manner and were therefore thought suitable to carry the spell to the underworld. One had also been found in another well. But there was good reason for the transition of ill-will from graves to wells in ancient Athens. 

Forbidden magic

The well where the curses were found was excavated in 2016 by a team under Stroszeck’s direction while investigating the water supply to a bathhouse about 60 meters beyond the Dipylon – the city-gate on the road to the Academy. It was a public bathhouse, not a private one, that operated from Classical to Hellenistic times,  the fifth to the first centuries B.C.E., and is thought to be the spa referred to by the comic playwright Aristophanes (Knights, 1307-1401). It was also mentioned in a speech by the 4th century B.C.E. Greek rhetorician Isaeus (against Kalydon, fragment 24). 

Model sarcophagus and figurine made of lead, found at the bottom of the Keremeikos well, 5th century B.C.E.Dr. Jutta Stroszeck / German Archaeological Institute

Despite more than a century of excavations in Kerameikos, the well had not been excavated before. Previous work in the area had been done by the architect Heinz Johannes and the archaeologist Kurt Gebauer, but was interrupted by World War II. None of the excavators survived the war: Johannes was sent to the Russian front and died there in 1945, and Gebauer died in an airplane crash over Vienna in 1942. Only recently were the excavations at the bathhouse resumed.

Inside the well the archaeologists found a wealth of material, including drinking vessels (skyphoi), wine mixing vessels (krater), clay lamps, cooking pots, special broad-mouthed clay pots used to draw water (kadoi), wooden artifacts including a trinket box, a scraper used by potters, a wooden pulley, part of the drawing mechanism of the well) a number of bronze coins, as well as organic remains such as peach pits. And the curses.