Caesarea Maps & Plans: Well

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The courtyard contained a system of water features. Just south of the central axis of the courtyard, Penn excavators found a channel feeding into the corner of a cistern. The IAA team later revealed the cistern to be one of two large stone tanks beneath the central axis of the courtyard. In 1994, a well (below right) was discovered at the west end of the water channel, possibly the source of the water for channels later found in the IAA area, if not for the cisterns themselves.

At the bottom of well, a cache of some 60 lead defixione, or curse tablets, were recovered during wet-sieving. These tablets and an associated assemblage of coins, dating to the 4th c. A.D., are discussed below by Barbara Burrell. A small plastered floor was excavated to the south of the well, at a lower level. Its purpose is unclear, but it perhaps served for water raising.

The Well: Coins and Lead Defixione

Peering into the well

Just off axis in the western end of the courtyard of the Upper Palace, a well was added sometime after the initial construction of the complex. It was deep enough to tap the shallow ground-water of this coast and was probably either cleaned frequently or used for only a short time, as its contents were not strongly stratified. Analysis of the highly eroded pottery suggests a range in the 4th to 6th c. A.D., but the most precise indicator of the well's period of use is an assemblage of 94 coins found in the bottom. Some of these coins are fragile and still in treatment, but of the 24 that could readily be cleaned and studied, 22 are of the fourth century, with the latest being a SALVS REI PVBLICAE (2) of Theodosius I, dated A.D. 383-395.

Where mintmarks are legible, there are 4 coins of Antioch, 2 of Heraclea, 1 of Kyzikos, one of Thessalonica, and 1 of Constantinople. The terminus post quem of this very homogenous series is thus A.D. 383. The 2 minimi, generally 5th c. but not strictly datable, probably filtered through the coarse debris used to fill the well after it went out of use.

The well's contents were recovered by wet-sieve: of the many artifacts found, including well preserved dice and bone artifacts, the most interesting group is a series of lead scrolls and their fragments, around 60 in number. Ten of the complete scrolls have been successfully unrolled, and C. Del Re of the Milwaukee Public Museum is directing their treatment. S. Koob of the Freer and Sackler Galleries of the Art, Smithsonian Institution, has tested a sampling of the tablets by X-ray fluorescence spectrometer, and found them to be predominantly lead (95.3-98.9%), with a small amount of tin (4.7-1.1%), very minor amounts of iron and copper that were probably impurities in the lead/tin, and minor amounts of calcium picked up from the burial environment. The lead sheets vary in thickness, size and tightness of rolling.

A woman tosses curse tablets into the well in this plan view.

Barbara Burrell and H. Parker of the University of Cincinnati have been collaborating on the long process of deciphering the scrolls. So far, all that could be read have proved to be in Greek. As the words were scratched with a stylus into the soft lead, they are difficult to read, but they appear to conform to the pattern of "curse tablets" and binding spells found elsewhere in the Greco-Roman world. One scroll contains a "magic square" of the mystic word brakbak repeated over and over. Another may contain the words damator, "tamer," ho megas theos, "the great god," desmois, "with bonds," and verbs from the root bakkheo, "run wild." Another interesting aspect is that botancial remains were rolled up in two of the tablets, and human hair in one other.

It is noteworthy that an eminent Christian from fourth century Caesarea knew of and inveighed against the use of curse tablets. Eusebius, Bishop of Caesarea, in his address on the dedication of the church of the Holy Sepulchre in A.D. 335, called them "curse tablets of forbidden sorcery," designed to enroll the assistance of invisible (and obviously unholy) powers. One would presume that as Bishop, Eusibius would have had occasions for calling on the provincial governor in his praetorium at Caesarea, but one would wonder if he knew that the courtyard's well was being used for the very "forbidden sorcery" that he condemned.

Read more Details in Excavations

Major Artifacts Found in the Well

  • Defixione, or curse tablets
  • Coins

In this cartoon, a citizen dictates a curse to a professional scribe
(illustration from Smithsonian Magazine)


a curse tablet before cleaning & preservation


One curse tablet implored various deities to make a certain wrestler "fall down and make a fool of himself".
(illustration from Smithsonian Magazine)



For a complete map of courtyard features, please see this map from the Roman and Byzantine Period.