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Inscribed Neolithic Hand Axes as Amulets in the So-Called ‘Pergamon Magical Kit’

Kassandra Jackson

            Among the finds uncovered at Pergamon in the 1890s by the German archaeological team of Conze and Humann is a unique set of objects: three slices taken from two Neolithic stone hand axes, which bear nearly identical inscriptions composed of numinous characters and words of power. The magical nature of these inscriptions, dated on the basis of letter-forms to the 2nd/3rd c. CE, suggests that these axes were reinterpreted in the Roman Imperial period as amulets. This hypothesis is further supported by the unique assortment of items with which the stones were found: a triangular bronze table, a convex bronze disk, two engraved rings, three bronze lamellae, and a four-sided bronze nail, all of which are inscribed with magical characters and invocations.

            Such repurposing of Neolithic axe-heads was not uncommon in the classical world. Numerous examples of uninscribed axe-heads have been found at sites across Europe from the beginning of the Greco-Roman period, functioning as grave goods, pendants in necklaces, or amulets for the house or body. Current evidence suggests, however, that inscribed hand axes were a phenomenon limited solely to the eastern half of the Roman Empire during the Imperial period. Inscribed axes are rare, and the three Pergamon stones are the only extant example of such axes appearing as a group.

            Given their unique find conditions, as well as the fascinating content of their inscriptions, it is surprising that the Pergamon stones have received so little scholarly attention. Although some interest has begun to kindle in recent years – most notably in two short articles by Gordon (2002) and Mastrocinque (2002) –  few have questioned the readings and interpretations first published by Wünsch in 1905. My wider project seeks to challenge some of these long-held assumptions about the Pergamon hand axes, regarding the content of their texts, their function, and the number of scribes involved in their production.

            This paper, however, focuses specifically on the content of the stones’ inscriptions. It begins by refuting Wünsch’s long-propagated claim that the Pergamon axes invoke the Roman god Mercury and offers a new interpretation of those letters as part of a sequence of rhyming words of power. It goes on to discuss the degree of Jewish influence apparent in these texts, examining in particular the rarely mentioned archangel Ragouel, who features on the stones’ obverses. Next follows a consideration of certain common formulae that appear on the axes and reflect their author(s)’s familiarity with broadly circulating trends in Greco-Egyptian magical invocation. Finally, this paper explores two possible interpretations of the strange list of Greek-based words that appears in the lower register of the stones’ obverse texts: (a) as a magical invocation composed of unintelligible words of power and (b) as a list of ingredients, divine attributes, or sympathetic correspondences.

            The inscribed hand axes from Pergamon offer a fascinating example of how members of the Roman Empire reinterpreted and adapted artifacts from a previous age according to their own contemporary needs. There is also much for scholars to learn about the relationship between the Pergamon stones and other types of amulets (gems, lamellae, figural pendants, other inscribed hand axes) with respect to their range of possible uses, the deities to which they appeal, the forms of their invocations, etc. It is the goal of this paper to instigate and develop such conversations.

Session/Panel Title

Ancient Amulets: Language and Artifact

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