More than 1,500 years ago, during the Roman Empire, a young woman died and was buried in the city of Viminacium, in modern-day Serbia. Someone close to her thought she might need some help in the next life.
A particular kind of help. Help from a demon.
Ilija Dankovic from the Archaeological Institute in Belgrade is one of the archaeologists excavating the remains of Viminacium, including the grave of the unnamed woman. Alongside her remains, his team discovered a selection of spells inscribed on tiny gold and silver pages locked in a lead amulet.
"When they are inscribed on gold and silver, we are talking about protective magic," says Dankovic. "Someone, maybe the woman, wanted to be protected against black magic or maybe against a disease that she had."
The woman's grave isn't the only set of spells found at the site. The team has come upon another grave nearby, also with spells hidden in amulets. So far Dankovic and his colleagues have struggled to decode the text — but they have been able to decipher some of the names engraved on the scrolls. And they are not ordinary names, he says.
"So far, the names of various demons from what is nowadays Syria have been recognized [by scholars]. Those two scrolls are [also] inscribed with numerous magical symbols — and we know them from ancient Israel."
The metal the spell was inscribed on had great significance. Love spells and curses on an enemy were written on lead. A protective spell, like that found with the woman of Viminacium, was carved into gold or silver.
Not everyone is relaxed about breaking open a golden spell protected by an ancient demon, says Dankovic.
"Some of our workers on the dig have superstitions about the find. The Romans believed in these things very much. So much that the lead ones with curses were forbidden by law. So the official state of Rome recognized them as something real, something big, that is functional and something not to be fiddled around with."