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Biblical Archaeology Review 48:1, Spring 2022

Sorceress Toolkit

Famously buried by the eruption of Mt. Vesuvius in 79 C.E., Pompeii was frozen in time until its rediscovery in the 18th century. Since then, archaeologists have periodically excavated the site.

Recent excavations led by the Archaeological Park of Pompeii—the organization tasked with preserving Pompeii and its environs—unearthed some fascinating equipment: a sorceress’s toolkit. Scholars believe sorceresses would have served their clients in Pompeii by telling fortunes, divining pregnancies, conducting fertility rites, and warding off bad luck. The kit contained around 100 objects—everything a sorceress would have needed to perform her duties—including buttons, bells, scarab beetles, tiny model skulls and fists, amber, carnelian, and bronze decorative objects, figurines of men and satyrs, and miniature phallic amulets.

The toolkit was discovered in a luxurious villa dubbed the Garden House. In another room there were ten victims of the eruption, all women and children. Archaeologists plan to use DNA analysis to determine if the women and children were related. It’s possible the toolkit belonged to one of these victims. The assemblage did not contain any precious stones or gold objects, which might suggest that its owner was a woman of low status, perhaps even a slave, potentially someone who did not have the means to escape the eruption and perished in the villa alongside the rest of the household.

The toolkit will soon be on display in the Palestra Grande at Pompeii.

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