Sunday, 13 December 2015

GODS AND GODDESSES IN ROMAN BRITAIN at The British Museum



THE BRITISH MUSEUM in Bloomsbury

On the 4th December I went up to London by train and got the underground, the northern line, to Tottenham Court Road. I got out there and walked to the British Museum in Bloomsbury. I wanted to take one of the free gallery tours the British Museum provides. I saw that there was a free tour starting at 11.15am in Room 49, one of the Roman Galleries. The tour and accompanying talk was titled, “Gods and Goddesses in Roman Britain.” I walked to room 49 by way of the grand staircase that is located on the left of the main entrance to the British Museum. I noticed a lady standing in the far right hand corner, looking around at the people in the gallery. One gentleman was standing with her. She saw me looking and smiled. I realized that this lady was the tour guide and I introduced myself. The gentleman waiting with her said hello too. There was just the two of us on this guided tour apparently but just as she began to talk, showing us a map of Roman Britain positioned on the wall, another gentleman joined us. So it was to be three of us.

The grand staircase leading to the upper galleries and Room 49.

The lady taking the tour was genial and enthusiastic. She explained that the tour lasted half an hour and that she would be showing us a range of gods and goddesses from locations found in different parts of the Roman Provence, Britannia. She demonstrated on the map of Roman Britain where the places the Gods, she was going to talk about, were found. She pointed out Corbridge on the River Tyne in the far north,  places in Lincolnshire, Norfolk, Hertfordshire and Londinium. Finally, we were going as far south as Hinton St Mary in Dorset.  The Gods and Goddesses we were going to consider mostly came from the 4 th century AD, towards the end of Roman rule in Britain, when there was upheaval in the political and social makeup of the island. It was a time when there were less individual Gods and one or two gods were becoming preeminent such as Minerva the goddess of water and Mithras, the god of war, but it also was a time that saw  the introduction of Christianity. It was a time of religious contrasts and change as well a political change.

A fine figure of a man. The God Mars from Fossdyke.

We started our tour with a case of small bronze votive offerings.It appears that the people of Britannia were superstitious. If they were going on a business trip, or they were unwell or perhaps they wanted good fortune, they would make an offering to their favourite god or goddess, the one they thought would be most favourable to their cause. This votive offering usually took the form of a small bronze effigy placed in the temple associated with their god. I presume prayers and chants were intoned, probably accompanied with scented tapers. The worship would include sensory effects of all kinds. Psychologically the worshiper would be now in a positive state of mind ready for their task ahead. The first effigy we looked at was a small, very detailed bronze statue of Mars, the god of war found at Fossdyke in Lincolnshire. It is a statue of a naked man looking muscular and well built.  It is a very flattering male figure to say the least. One aspect that is interesting about this statue  is that it stands on a bronze plinth  inscribed with a dedication to the God Mars and also to the Emperor. It  reads that it was dedicated by the Colasuni, Bruccius and Caratius and was made by the bronzesmith  Celatus who also donated some of the metal. Bruccius and Caratius were brothers, probably setting out on a business trip to another part of the Empire. What is  unusual is that the person who made the statue, Caratius, also provided some of the expensive bronze. Caratius was not thinking about making and selling a votive offering for profit it seems. Maybe by making a contribution to the statue, Ceratius, also wanted to praise the god Mars. He too must have wanted a favour. You wonder what his intentions might have been. As it is a particularly fine specimen of a votive offering  he has put a lot of work and effort into making it. These three men are investing much in this statuette. They want something badly. It is easy to say they are ignorant and superstitious. However, superstition is created through human imagination and sometimes partial knowledge about something and this belief can increase in power over time. In our own lives we invest meaning in objects. A collective family memory has meaning for us, a photograph of a best friend living on the other side of the world, a piece of furniture or a vase passed down through the family. Stories and memories attached to objects build up meaning and attachment within that object. So perhaps we should not deride the people of the Roman province nearly two thousand years ago because,  are we different really?

The Corbridge Lanx.

One particularly impressive artefact was the Corbridge, Lanx found in the River Tyne. It is ,an almost pristine, embossed rectangular silver dish. It portrays a scene of five gods and goddesses from ancient Greek antiquity. It is important to note that all the Roman Gods were taken from the Greeks. The Lanx shows a shrine to Apollo. What is interesting about it though is that it was made, like many of the objects we were looking at in our tour, in the 4th century AD when Christianity was becoming popular throughout the Empire. There are various speculations about its purpose. It could be that the owner wanted to show that he or she knew about the old gods even though he or she may well have taken on Christianity. It might be a teaching aid about the old gods. Unlike some of the other silver and gold wear artefacts on display in room 49, it is unscratched. It probably was not used to carry food. Other elaborate embossed plates show evidence for knives being used to cut food on their surface. The Corbridge, Lanx has no such marks. Perhaps it was merely displayed to be looked at?  Because it was made at a time of religious and political upheaval it can be read as the owner hedging their bets. He or she may have become a Christian but they were keeping the old Gods happy too. This attitude can also be seen in the mosaic floor uncovered in Dorset that we also looked at later.

The most flattering view of Senuna. Her front is mostly worn away and decayed.

Ashwell is a lovely village positioned on the edge of a chalk escarpment, fourty five miles north of the centre of London, in Hertfordshire. The springs that emerge from the chalk escarpment there are the source of the River Cam. It was here in 2002 that Alan Meek, a detectorist, came across the Ashwell hoard consisting of gold jewelry, several plaques of gold and silver and a small silver figurine of the goddess, Senuna. The plaques have her name embossed on them so the archaeologists were able to make this association of the statue and the plaques. Senuna was an unknown goddess. She seems to have been connected with the Roman Goddess Minerva because she has similar characteristics. One thing that this talk revealed is that the term Romano Britain is a good description of Roman Britain. The Romans did not replace local customs and beliefs but were very good at assimilating what the local people believed in and integrated local traditions with Roman traditions. Roman Britain had its own unique characteristics therefore, different from other parts of the Empire. Other parts of the Empire too would have had their local characteristics. However, all places within the Empire would have had recognizably  Roman characteristics too. This goddess figurine of Senuna is a good example of that process. Senuna is believed to have been a local water goddess associated with the springs. Minerva was a Roman water goddess and so the two became associated in this part of Roman Britain. The Roman Army is a good example of this adaptive process also. Roman legions throughout the Empire were recruited from local regional tribes. Even the great Roman Army became, over time, an amalgam of nations. One of the important linking traits though was that they were all Roman Citizens.

Some of the gold and silver votive offerings  with Senuna's name printed on them. It was been noticed that these were made with dies that were pressed into the thin metal leaves. Some of them were printed with the same die.

The other issue that the Ashwell hoard find highlights is the assistance of amateur metal detectorists and their undoubted modern day contribution to archaeology. Alan Meek, the gentleman who discovered the hoard was one such metal detectorist. Archaeologists try and include detectorists, with their expertise in detecting metal objects, in the exploration of archaeological sites. Dr Francis Pryor, the archaeologist who has excavated many Mesolithic sites in Britain, discusses the useful help detectorists provide, in his book, Home, a study of the, "home", in Mesolithic and subsequent ancient times. Obviously metal is a prerequisite so Francis Prior discusses the use of detectorists on Bronze Age and Iron Age sites and those following on from those periods in our history. I got the sense from his book that at first he was against using these amateurs, who, admittedly, have caused problems in the past, disturbing archaeological sites and sometimes stealing rare and important finds. However, Francis Pryor and many other archaeologists have formed friendly and productive relationships with detectorists where their expertise, which the run of the mill archaeologist might not have, can be used constructively in a planned and structured way alongside archaeologists working in the field. Many rare finds, especially some of the fantastic metal hoards such as the one found at Ashwell would not have been discovered.

The roundel from the Hinton St Mary villa mosaic.

Finally, we arrived at a particularly impressive display in our tour of Roman gods and goddesses. It was a 4th century AD mosaic roundel from a floor discovered in a Roman Villa at Hinton St Mary in Dorset. It depicts a large head of a young man gazing straight out of the mosaic, looking the onlooker squarely in the eye. It is an unwavering stare. Behind his head protrude the overlapping letters P and X. These are the Greek letters chi and rho. They stand for the early Christian symbol for Jesus Christ. It probably means that the mosaic portrait depicts Christ. But we have to be careful. There are oblique references to the Roman pagan gods too in the roundel. In the four corners, where in a pagan depiction there would be representations of the four seasons, there are instead representations of what could be the four gospel writers. Or maybe they are the four seasons amalgamated with the Christian symbolism of the central portrait? The image does strongly suggest a Christian depiction but we have always got to remember that the Romans were good at mixing and matching and playing the political game. They liked to hedge their bets. Joined to the apparently Christian roundel a short step away in the next room of the villa at Hinton St Mary is another floor that shows the pagan hero Bellepheron overcoming the triple headed Chimera. A pagan symbol for good overcoming evil, but isn’t that also a Christian belief?
The portrayal of a time when religious,political and national upheaval was going on, the 4th century AD, has its resonances today. There is  evidence for all sorts of  beliefs, customs and ideas coming together, adapting and changing the way people lived. So many things were being put into a sort of melting pot. We only have to look at modern times to see the same types of forces and changes going on. This gives us a strong attachment to the ancient people of Britain. They really were no different from us. The human condition doesn’t change does it?



3 comments:

  1. I can't imagine cutting food on something like that! Interesting thought about investing meaning in objects. My husband was talking about that one day -- he held up a glass and said "Why is it that something, like this glass, is just what it is unless it belonged to someone you knew?"

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  2. Yes, Jean. We invest a lot of meaning in things that hold memories and associations. That goes for people too I think.

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  3. I meant to mention. I have just baked another loaf of bread. It looks successful. Ha! Ha! I will have to wait and see. I put a lot of stuff on Facebook. I have noticed you don't do Facebook, Jean.

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