Hold Your Horses


September/October 2018

Trenches Antioch Lead Curse TabletA thin lead curse tablet dating to the fifth century A.D. that was folded and nailed shut to intensify its power has recently been opened, some 80 years after it was discovered beneath the hippodrome in Antioch, in modern-day Turkey. Curse tablets from the period are generally in Greek or Latin, but this one, although difficult to make out with the naked eye, turns out to have been written in a Jewish dialect of Aramaic using Hebrew lettering. “This means it was written by a Jewish scribe,” says Rivka Elitzur-Leiman of Tel Aviv University, “if not a Jewish magician.”


Working around holes in the text where the nail punched through, Elitzur-Leiman and Margaretha Folmer of Leiden University are now deciphering the tablet’s message with photos taken using reflectance transformation imaging. The tablet’s curse seems to have been aimed at disabling opposing horses in a chariot race. It calls on God and his angels to drown the opponents and on a particular angel, who stood in front of Balaam’s donkey in the Book of Numbers, to block the opponents’ way.