The Materiality of Magical Practices in Roman Britain

Parker, Adam (2022). The Materiality of Magical Practices in Roman Britain. PhD thesis The Open University.



This thesis investigates the magical objects and magical materials of Roman Britain. It aims to demonstrate that contextual analysis of both images and materials, based on a provincial dataset, has the potential to shed valuable new light on ancient magical practices. The thesis rejects a top-down analysis of magical practices based on thematic intentions (e.g., love magic, divination, necromancy) and instead proposes a bottom-up approach that situates materials and the importance of materiality as central to these practices. The Roman province of Britain provides geographical and temporal limits to the scope of the research.

At the heart of the thesis lies a specific definition of the rubric ‘magic’, which is used to create an internally consistent dataset of magical objects from the province of Roman Britain. The gathered data resulted in a dataset of 2,442 objects, representing 15 categories and 46 types of object. This unique dataset is used to critically approach the subject of magic from multiple analytical directions: (1) the analysis of the materials as cohesive groups of different objects; (2) a consideration of some of the most common forms of magical object in the dataset and the implications of their ubiquity; (3) the situating of these objects in spatial contexts and, in particular, a theoretically-informed exploration of their material and sensory importance when embodied. The thesis concludes that materials and materiality were important elements in ancient magical practice and that the power of these practices could be drawn from either the inherent properties of certain materials or from specific shapes. Furthermore, it concludes that certain amulets probably had a spatially limited zone where they were most efficacious, that their use as clandestine or hidden objects was meaningful, and that there was greater complexity in the use of these objects than has been previously appreciated.

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