A 2,300-year-old ceramic jar filled with the bones of a dismembered chicken was found beneath the floor of the Athens Agora Classical Commercial Building.
The jar, found alongside a coin, was likely part of an ancient curse to paralyze and kill 55 people and reveals new evidence for how people tried to use “magic” in the Ancient Athens.
“The pot contained the dismembered head and lower limbs of a young chicken,” Jessica Lamont, a classics professor at Yale University, wrote in an article published in the journal Hesperia.
“All exterior surfaces of the [jar] were originally covered with text; it once carried over 55 inscribed names, dozens of which now survive only as scattered, floating letters or faint stylus strokes” Lamont wrote.
She noted that the Greek writing contains words that may mean “we bind”.
The nail and chicken parts likely played a role in the curse.
Nails are commonly found with ancient curses and “had an inhibiting force and symbolically immobilized or restrained the faculties of [the curse’s] victims,” Lamont wrote.
The chicken was no older than 7 months when it was killed, and the people who created the curse may have wanted to transfer “the chick’s helplessness and inability to protect itself” to the people whose names are inscribed on the jar, according to the researcher.
She explained that “by twisting off and piercing the head and lower legs of the chicken, the curse composers sought to incapacitate the use of those same body parts in their victims.”
“The ritual assemblage belongs to the realm of Athenian binding curses and aimed to ‘bind’ or inhibit the physical and cognitive faculties of the named individuals,” Lamont explained.
The jar was placed near several burned pyres that contained animal remains — something that may have enhanced the curse’s power.
The curse jar was excavated in 2006 and was recently analyzed and deciphered by Lamont.
Excavation of the jar was overseen by Marcie Handler, who was a doctoral student in classics at the University of Cincinnati at the time.