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I was strolling through the Wikipedia page on bronze and found a picture of bronze nails from Roman times. Under the picture is a text saying

Roman bronze nails with magical signs and inscriptions, 3rd-4th century AD

What would a Roman want to achieve with these writings? I know they sometimes used nails on a curse tablet, is there a source describing these practices and their reasoning?

The Wikipedia page on Curse Tablets only makes mentions of nails being used to pierce said tablets but not that they themselves are used like a tablet.

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  • Directly below it says: "...Roman, 3rd-4th century AD Magical nails 'fixed' permanently with the power of magic. Some were used in shrines, others were probably driven into doors of houses to protect the household..." - makes sense, as nails are common objects, small, compact - can be easily affixed into doors and walls and such.
    – Harel13
    Feb 26 at 13:38
  • @Harel13 The "were probably driven" part made me ask for a source
    – Tom Sol
    Feb 26 at 14:59
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    The important thing here is probably what the nails said.
    – Mary
    Feb 28 at 16:24
  • @Mary That would be very important. Feel free to make an answer if you have some info, I'll gladly upvote it.
    – Tom Sol
    Mar 1 at 13:24
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I suggest you take a look at Nails for the dead: a polysemic account of an ancient funerary practice by Silvia Alfayé. The paper focuses on the use of nails in Roman funerary practices, but in section 3 she offers a nice overview on the ritual/magical uses of nails in general, including the inscribed bronze nails you are asking about, which she describes as:

These are the so-called chiodi magici, which are 10–20cm long, made of bronze or iron, decorated with geometrical patterns, sigla and/or charakteres, and show no signs of wear.

She then lists various possible uses which have been suggested for them: as tools of divination, as votive objects, as amulets. It is even suggested that some of them were used to cure epilepsy, using a technique cited by Pliny, or that they were just more sophisticated versions of simpler, non-inscribed funerary nails.

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  • Nice answer, I will read through the paper to see if that answers my question.
    – Tom Sol
    Feb 26 at 15:00
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    Probably the best reference for these inscribed bronze nails would be "Chiodi Magici" by Gabriella Bevilacqua, but it's in italian and I couldn't find an open access link for it. Feb 26 at 21:50
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    I found one on JSTOR and I have an account there. I'll take a look, thanks! Also the paper you linked answered more than I could have hoped for. I appreciate your continued contributions!
    – Tom Sol
    Mar 1 at 13:34
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I have heard of different cultures writing magical spells on building materials so that the building can be protected and blessed.

Think of it this way. You could have a priest come in and bless your whole building. You could have a priest individually bless every part of the building. The latter might make it even better, right—more meticulous? Even so, how long will these methods of warding off demons last? What if the priest dies, or what if the demon didn't hear what the priest said? For the best protection, you can protect every piece of your house with magical writing.

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  • So you are saying the Romans used Magical nails for protection in their houses? Do you have any sources for this? I would greatly appreciate some sources on this.
    – Tom Sol
    Mar 1 at 13:22

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