The Museum of London is home to this piece of pewter. I know it doesn’t look like much of a gift.
It was uncovered in 1989 during an excavation of the old Roman shore line of the River Thames.
The Thames has transported princesses to palaces and traitors to the tower. It has been skated on, fished in and used to take away the things Londoner’s would rather forget.
But this object wasn’t intended to be part of the city’s detritus.
After archaeologists washed away the centuries of river silt, this piece of pewter, measuring 13cm by 5cm, was identified as an amulet, an object designed to protect the wearer from harm. It was rolled up and worn round the neck.
It is inscribed with thirty lines of Greek, which you can barely make out, a prayer invoking the gods to protect an individual named Demetrios from the plague.
The pestilence Demetrios sought protection from is now referred to as the Antonine Plague. It took place between 160-185 A.D and it spread across Europe as quickly as the Roman armies did.
A translation of the Greek by Oxford classicist, Dr. Roger Tomlin reveals that the gods are called on to send away ‘infiltrating pain, heavy-spiriting, flesh-wasting, melting, from the hollows of the veins’ to ‘drive away the cloud of plague’ and to ‘bring help’.
It sounds desperate and it was. An estimated five million people died of the Antonine plague.
How the amulet came to end up in the river is as much up for debate as how Demetrios, likely Greek in origin, came to be in London. Though one view, based on similar finds elsewhere in Europe, suggests that it was thrown into the river as a votive: a gift to the gods.
It sounds like a primitive belief but when we consider just how many of us throw pennies into fountains, make wishes when we blow out candles and still ask gods to help us in desperate times, Demetrios and his beliefs don't seem so remote.
People obviously survived the plague. I wonder if the amulet worked for Demetrios.
Museum of London
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