Thursday, June 30, 2011

Tanks a lot

For an area that has had no military conflict of any sort since the Black Hawk War of 1832 (and that only lasted a few weeks), Wisconsin seems rather heavily armed.  As I go here and there to my various jobs I see things like this:
outside a VFW in Eau Claire

And this:

Guarding Highway 70 in Spooner

And this:
This one is in Elroy, but I used to know where a similar one was located that was open.  My kids swiveled the turret to aim at passing cars!

These were donated to local Veterans organizations or National Guard units when they became obsolete, and I think have a certain majesty to them....kind of like martial versions of dinosaur skeletons in the natural history museum.  A couple of industrious guys have collected a listing of all such memorials in the state, which you can find here .

I am keeping the list handy, because you never know when you might wake up some morning and find that your neighbors have become, oh, 25% less pleasant:

Yes, a Zombie outbreak could seriously ruin your day.

But not mine.

No sir.  I am going to set out to the nearest tank memorial with a large can of diesel fuel and my Number 2 son, a young man of protean mechanical aptitude.

Give us maybe half an hour and he will have things MacGyvered into operational status, and my family will not only ride out the Inevitable Zombie Inconvenience, we will ride it out in style!

Wednesday, June 29, 2011

The Glory of a Gloomy Day

The Fourth of July is fast approaching.  This is foreshadowed in mid to late June by the arrival of fireworks tents.  They spring up like patriotic mushrooms of garish hue in parking lots and along roadsides.

The fireworks business has always intrigued me.  There is about it just a whiff of Carny.  It has the sense of transience.  It has a feel of showmanship.  And it cheerfully charges you ridiculous prices with the justification that it is an infrequent, enjoyable splurge.

And also, like the Carny world it has its own rules, or rather a partial immunity from the rules of conventional society.  

Fireworks laws in Wisconsin are a little like tax laws in Italy.  They are on the books but generally winked at-with their very evasion on a colossal scale lending a certain legitimacy to pyrotechnic scofflaws*.  Heck, who wants to discourage expressions of patriotism.

In my younger days I was a bit of a powder monkey but in my more recent working career have begun to see some wisdom in limiting the firepower of explosives placed in the hands of rash youths and their imbibing pater familiae.

In any event, just down the hill from my house I saw this:
Setting up the fireworks tent on a gloomy day.  But what actually caught my eye was the storage container that they were unloading from:
I thought this was a great name for a fireworks company, as it combined so many thematic elements. We appear to have the United States, Old Glory, and perhaps just the gloriousness of fireworks in general.

Alas, alas, for my theory the reality is a bit more prosaic.  Uniglory is a freight forwarding company in Bangladesh.  They are a member in good standing of the Dhaka Chamber of Commerce.  I guess if you want to order your own container load of patriotism you may inquire with a certain Mr. Mohammed Rafiqul Islam.
---------
*Here's the deal.  In Wisconsin it is legal to light off wimpy stuff like sparklers and smoke bombs.  At these marvelous fireworks tents you can, however, in addition purchase all manner of exciting things that fly and/or explode.  Now, by law you are not allowed to transport these big time fireworks in a vehicle, nor to-God forbid-set them off.  The official assumption seems to be (wink-wink-nudge-nudge) that you will take them in hand and walk to the nearest state boundary, where any property and personal damage that occurs is of no concern to the Badger state.  Hmmmm. What a civics class lesson to young citizens!

Monday, June 27, 2011

Valedictory Sentiments

It was late springtime in Wisconsin, so along rural byways you saw many indications of high school graduations.  Lots of signs announcing "Justin's Party" or some such, usually with school color balloons bobbing precariously in the wind. 

Less commonly you might see a sign congratulating a group of graduates, say, members of a given church.

And every once in a while something more substantial put up by a local business to Well Wish an entire graduating class.

Check out this substantial example
This was on a flat bed outside a plumbing establishment, and yes indeed, its a gigantic septic tank.

At first I thought it was an odd tribute-it is one assumes shortly going to be buried somewhere-but on reflection I am really warming to it.

There was considerable care, and some expense, devoted to the decoration.  It will serve as a highly perplexing time capsule for far future archeologists.  And honestly, when you get right down to it what accomplishments of technological society are actually more crucial than indoor plumbing?

Best of wishes Jacks and Jills.

Friday, June 24, 2011

The Lost Roman Province of Occidentia-Part Three

Having perhaps had a little fun with some of the less plausible evidence of contact between the Americas and the world of Antiquity, it should be noted that there are a few enigmatic clues that suggest that just maybe a few Romans made it to these distant shores.

The most plausible scenario would be storm tossed mariners remarkably surviving an ocean crossing in ships designed to rarely leave sight of land.  It exceeds credulity to imagine any of them being brave enough to try a reverse journey to tell of their experience.

But perhaps they might bring a few things with them, exotic artifacts to the indigenous peoples.  The Round Rock Mound coin could be such an item.  As could this:
This is a small terra cotta figurine sometimes called Calixtlahuaca's head, after the Mexican archeological site where it was found in 1933.  This was a site excavated under appropriate archeological technique, and the head was found under floor surfaces that were definitely pre Contact.

Dating techniques are not specific enough to help much, but stylistically this indeed appears to be of Roman origin.  The beard alone makes a Meso American manufacture seem implausible.

Calixtlahuaca's head has generated a bit of controversy.  A fair summary of same can be found Here

As to its site of manufacture there seems little doubt; scoffers point to the possibility of an archeological prank gone awry, or to chaotic artifact storage allowing for a mix up.  Probably there will be no satisfactory resolution to this debate.

If this was a Roman artifact somehow making it halfway around the world, where would it have arrived?  Although there are a few who suggest trans Pacific contact, the likely route would have been trans Atlantic.  And just maybe a potential land fall was at Guranbara Bay, near Rio de Janeiro.  Supposedly in the 1970s fishermen kept snagging their nets on an underwater wreck.  They eventually hauled up some heavy earthenware jars that they broke up, feeling they might be "macumba jars" used in voodoo ceremonies.  Later scuba divers recovered a few more jars and sold several to tourists.  The Brazilian police intervened, and confiscated two jars which are said to be of Roman origin.  See this somewhat rambling discussion for more details Romans do Rio.

Interestingly when researching possible points of origin for a wrecked Roman trading ship I looked at the suggested Cape Verde islands off the coast of Africa and found zero evidence of Roman contact.  The closest confirmed jumping off point would have been the Canary islands where there was at least a modest degree of Roman presence/trading.   One red flag popped up right away when reading about Roman pottery in the Canaries

"In 1964 a Roman amphora was discovered in waters off Lanzarote, and since then a number of others have been found underwater. All, however, lacked proper context and could not be dated precisely; that they were truly Roman was also questioned because many were similar to amphorae used by the Spanish in the sixteenth century for trade with the Americas. The finds from El Bebedero show that Romans did trade with the Canaries, though there is no evidence of their ever settling there. "

So....it sounds as if there were still some amphora like vessels being used in the early days of Spanish trade with the Americas.  And since the Guranbara wreck has mysteriously been declared off limits for unknown reasons we are left with a few pottery shards and little more.

So with current archeological information we can at best entertain the notion of a few hungry and bedraggled Roman mariners washing up on the shores of a New World.  But they obviously did not spark a Renaissance that opened the riches of the West through a mythical Province of Occidentia. 

No, the poor fellows found themselves permanently marooned in a land where the grape was unknown, and where syphillis existed in a virulent form that would wreak havoc in Europe when contact was eventually made by Columbus.

Denied the pleasures of both Bacchus and Venus their lives would have been Hobbesian indeed..."solitary, poore, nasty, brutish and short".

Wednesday, June 22, 2011

The Lost Roman Province of Occidentia-Part two

Lets talk about coins turning up in odd places.  It is a common occurrence.  The best survey on the subject was by Epstein who looked at 40 accounts of Pre-Columbian coinage in North and South America.  He noted a few early examples, but a remarkable increase in the post World War II era....corresponding to a time of dramatic increase in American visitors to places where Roman coins could be purchased cheaply.  He felt that all such Pre-Columbian Greek and Roman coins were either lost by collectors, or in a few cases were examples of fraud.

Roman coins have turned up in pig pens.  And in the ruins of a Louisiana bus station.  And in a Los Angeles parking meter!

A couple of cases warrant specific discussion.

The earliest account of a Roman coin in the New World comes from Panama in 1533.  Unfortunately this story of a gold coin of Augustus turning up has no further mention in history, and is to be found only in a rather fanciful work that recounts various miraculous events occurring around the birth of King Ferdinand.

Another South American find was said to be a hoard of several hundred coins ranging from Augustus to 350 AD, a range far too broad to be anything other that the lost collection of an early aficionado.

This report Panama find comes from the New York Times.  (you will have to scroll down a ways to see it).  As it again reports the extraordinary circumstance of a hoard it might be a re-telling of the earlier hoard from, apparently, Venezuela.  One assumes that the Times, even today viewed as widely truthful unless discussing Republican politicians, might also have been snookered by an unscrupulous correspondent.

This is a coin from the time of the Bar Kokhba revolt against the Romans.  Several have turned up in Kentucky.  Alas, they are late 19th century forgeries for the tourist trade, perhaps given out as curios in a Bible Belt state.

We can only smile about the apparent coin of Maximus that turned up in the Seip Mound in Ohio.  On careful cleaning it proved instead to be a "portrayal of Father Time which appeared on an Elgin Watch Company token commemorating the Chicago Exposition of 1874".

The Bar Kokhba coin and these specimens from Kentucky and Ohio:

Appear on a site created by J. Huston McColloch who kindly allows their use.  He has collected other Archaeological Outliers here.

So most of the common Roman coins that are found in the Americas have mundane explanations.  They were modern imports that were lost or much less often used as hoaxes.  A similar situation exists in Britain with Alexandrian coinage.  These local issues are never excavated at Roman sites, but turn up in parks and gardens with some regularity, reflecting nothing more profound than the frequency of travel to Egypt.

But a very few cases raise doubts.  After all, a rather minimal Norse presence did leave behind one accepted coin in an Indian mound in Maine. Genuine Pre Columbian! So just maybe...

In 1964 a Native American site at Round Rock Texas was excavated with some speed due to an impending freeway project.  Three feet down in a mound a follis of Constantine the Great was unearthed.  Minted in London in 314 it was certainly out of place surrounded by stone implements. 

You could envision a storm tossed Roman ship washing up in the Gulf of Mexico.  It is more or less the same course Columbus ended up taking, albeit with better ships.

Unfortunately the excavation of the site seems to have been hurried, done by a mixture of amateur treasure hunters and a quick survey by professionals.  The observations of the latter were that the stone artifacts were above the reported find site of the Round Rock follis, and were substantially older.

This suggests disturbed stratigraphy.  Advocates of the authenticity of the find are vocal, and point to the hard rocky nature of the site making disturbance by vegetation unlikely. 

The site was effectively destroyed by the construction of I-35, so as you drive past at 65 miles an hour you do not have much time to ponder the mystery.

Monday, June 20, 2011

The Lost Roman Province of Occidentia-Part One

Jeff, one of my fellow excavators, noted the other day that the numbers of Americans and Canadians coming over to work at Vindolanda were really not surprising “because you have no archeology of your own”.

He of course did not mean we had “no” archeology, there is quite a lot of Pre-Columbian history, and even the study of more recent times is a wide topic.

No, Jeff meant we had no Roman archeology.

And in this my erudite friend was most atypically, incorrect.

We have a fair amount of Roman archeology here in North (and South) America.  It just does not make much if any sense.

Let me be clear.  What I am going to undertake is a quick survey of Roman artifacts “found” in the New World.  This will of necessity be a superficial look, if for no other reason than the scattered and often non scientific nature of the find data.

In trying to make some sense of this jumble I divide the data into three groups.

  1. The explainable
  2. The dubious
  3. The enigmatic
Let’s start out with a few Roman artifacts that make sense.

There are numerous accounts of Roman coins being found on the harbor floors of New World ports.  This is undoubtedly a result of ships traveling “in ballast”.  As this land lubber understands it:

Sailing ships need a certain amount of weight to be seaworthy.  They need it to maintain that proverbial “even keel”.  This is not a problem for a fully laden vessel.  But suppose you are a skipper put into the Port of London, and are not fortunate enough to contract for a full cargo?  Well, you just load up with extra rock and gravel from the nearest available source, which would be the Thames foreshore.  Chock a block with artifacts from the prehistoric era right up to last week.

Off you go to, say, Boston.  There a full cargo awaits, so you simply dump the extra ballast on the spot. 

Perhaps on a future voyage you will travel “in ballast” from the West Indies to London, where your offloaded ballast includes the bit of fossilized coral I mentioned finding in my post on Mud larking.

Specifics are a little sketchy on these finds-I did find a fairly complete account from Long Island Sound-probably because these artifacts being correctly regarded as totally out of context get little attention.  In general they tend to be the sort of Constantinian era small issues that one would expect to have been lost or discarded throughout the Empire.

Of a similar nature are the few shards of Samian ware found amongst the ballast stones of the 1621 wreck of the British supply ship Warwick in Castle Harbor, Bermuda.  (Although the actual origin of the ballast proper has been proven to not be London, and remains a mystery).

For a more impressive artifact-and one with impeccable context-behold!


This is a genuine Roman oil lamp, excavated with perfect archeological technique.

The only problem is that the context is early 1600s!

Yep, this was found at Jamestown, where it likely was a “curiosity” carried over by one of the Gentleman Adventurers.  It perhaps tells us a little about the character of those early and somewhat impractical settlers.

Certainly the troubled history of  Jamestown could have been much improved upon by simply importing a sufficiency of sturdy yeoman farmers rather than Gentlemen who hoped to grow rich picking gold nuggets up off the ground, or perhaps by trading worthless trinkets to the natives.

At least this unknown savant did not further complicate the archeological record by trading this artifact to some passing native for a haunch of venison.  In our next section-the Dubious-we will encounter a few such problems.

Thursday, June 16, 2011

We now return to our regularly scheduled program

On monday I noticed that my usual blog audience went up a bit.  From, oh, 30 or 40 bemused eccentrics to over 6000 readers.

This of course is a true sign not of the Apocalypse, but of the Instalanche.  http://www.instapundit.com/ is one of the more widely read blogs in this quadrant of the galaxy, and if Professor Reynolds takes a shine to you and lays down a link, well, you get a lot of people wondering what the fuss was all about.

Why Reynolds, aka The Blogfather, found Mordor slugs worthy of recognition is difficult to say.

Well, when thousands of unexpected house guests turn up you quickly run to the cupboards and lay out a few bowls of potato chips for them.  Hence a little extra posting this week.

But next week back to Monday/Wednesday/Friday.

Special treat next week if you like dubious archeology.....three posts on "The Lost Roman Province of Occidentia", the peculiar tale of Roman artifacts "found" in the Americas.

Cheers, and belated greetings to the Instapundit Legion.

T

Wednesday, June 15, 2011

Epic Fail

The Roman Empire spent a great deal of effort and money building Hadrians Wall.  All that man and mule power hauling those big stone blocks up hill sides that we find it hard to manage with just the weight of ourselves and a light rucksack.

And in its primary goal, keeping out hairy unkempt dimwitted natives?

Epic Fail.



Note: one possible source of the word "barbarian" is that ancient Greeks thought people speaking other languages sounded like they were saying "baa-baa" or something akin to that.  Coincidence?  I think not.

Tuesday, June 14, 2011

The slow death of a barn

A few more pictures of the old family farm as it waits out its final days.

The barn is a huge thing, an amalgamation of an 1860 horse stable and an 1870 barn linked by a large 1910 structure.  Much is too dangerous to enter, but a couple of pictures of some serious civil war era carpentry:

Old and new sections.  I really like how they dealt with sagging structural elements by just jamming a section of log in there....


This was assembled without nails I guess, lots of slots and wooden pegs.  The square chute projecting into the building has no purpose I can imagine.

Among other tasks we were pulling some heavy copper cable off the roofs of the barn.  It was attached to the numerous lightning rods.  A number of tactics were considered, none of which would have passed muster had our womenfolk been present.  Eventually we just hitched one end of the cable to my brother's pickup truck and drove.  The old barn shook and vibrated alarmingly but is still standing, its lean unaltered.

It was a fine day, my brother and I, each with a son working alongside of us.  We told a lot of stories of the old times and of our own growing up.  Given the greater maturity of our offspring we did not edit them as severely as in past versions.  We gathered up old steel and other metals for recycling.  It was well over 90 degrees, so we sweated together in harmonious fashion.  We hauled a truck load to the recycling center and got a payout of $182.

I think the young fellers learned a valuable life lesson.

People who remove copper wire from old buildings have an extremely viable business model.*


*although I would like to emphasize that we obviously had permission in this instance.

Monday, June 13, 2011

A History in Brick

We went out to the old family farm.  It is abandoned now, a couple of years after the last batchelor uncle departed the place for a nursing facility.  Predictably he did not last long there, our family has strong ties to home.

This is where our tribe set up housekeeping when they left Germany in 1858.
Of course in true pioneer fashion they started out in a log cabin-actually had to flee the Sioux Uprising in 1863-but they built this fine brick home in:

Apparently they left this one brick unpainted all those years...

Over time various members of the clan have scratched their initials in the rather soft brick.  Here is my brother, Frederick James W. pointing to his 1966 entry:

And here is the fine handiwork of my father, Frederick Henry W. circa early 1930s.  The smaller A.W. beneath is presumably my uncle Art.

And the earliest identifiable work, my grandfather Frederick Wilhelm W.  Much deteriorated and covered with some awful paint, it bears a faint 1900 date.

And lastly an undated and unhelpfully brief monogram:

We were out on a working trip, but I was tempted to suggest to my son or my nephew that they add another generation to the wall.  But as the old place is likely to be razed in the next couple of years it hardly seemed appropriate.

Friday, June 10, 2011

Travels in the Shire


One of the charming aspects of my archeology jaunts to northern England is the peaceful beauty of the Northumbrian countryside.  It is verdant green, unspoiled and free of most of the annoying aspects of modern life.

It is not precisely the England that J.R.R. Tolkien was remembering when he created the Shire, but close enough that I sometimes expect to see hobbits ducking behind mossy gnarled trees in my peripheral vision.

We have rustic cottages and farms.


We have stone bridges and little streams.


We even have an Inn that brings to mind Tolkien’s description of The Prancing Pony:*

“Even from the outside the inn looked a pleasant house to familiar eyes.  It had a front on the Road, and two wings running back on land partly cut out of the lower slopes of the hill…..The door was open and light streamed out of it.  Above the arch there was a lamp, and beneath it swung a large signboard: a fat pony reared up on its hind legs.  Over the door was painted in white letters: THE PRANCING PONY by BARLIMAN BUTTERBUR.  Many of the lower windows showed lights behind thick curtains.”
Twice Brewed Inn at dusk

Even the Shire had a few glimmers of darkness, both the shadows that could cross even the hearts of sturdy hobbits on occasion, and the fell creatures that prowled outside its bounds.

In my visits to this modern day Shire I have only encountered one possibly evil creature.  On cool drizzly mornings I sometimes see on the road what I have come to think of as Mordor Slugs.

*Yes, I know, technically the Prancing Pony was in Bree rather than the Shire proper.  We Tolkien geeks are meticulous in these matters.

Wednesday, June 8, 2011

You lookin' at me?

I really love the British Museum.  But I consistently get lost trying to find it!  I think it is because it was actually built rather early on, and the neighborhood grew up helter-skelter around it.

Last year while trying to find the place by dead reckoning my brother and I wandered into a little park. 

I love this sign.
Its the little things that make for an effective message delivery.  Why, some people consider small furry rodents cute.

Less cute with glowing red satanic demon-rat eyes!

Monday, June 6, 2011

The Brains of the outfit

We are at war.

Like so many conflicts of the modern era it has been a lingering, low level conflict.  It had no official start-in fact it has been ongoing for generations.  There will be no armistice or peace treaty signed to bring it to an end.

We are at war with rodents.

Chipmunks raiding our garage.  Squirrels on the bird feeder.  FLYING squirrels living in the walls.  Rabbits in the garden (technically of the order Lagomorpha, not Rodentia, but clearly an allied force).

Until recently I believed that this was a true guerrilla movement, one with no real leadership.  Just an endless font of dim witted recruits animated by hunger and ill conceived plans.

But I now know differently.  There is an organization, a leadership structure.  And at the top of the organizational chart for Rodent Jihad.....
This is Sugar Bush Squirrel.  He appears to be a real Eastern Grey Squirrel living in a posh private compound in Florida.  Unlike most fugitives SBS seems to love publicity, his website-well worth the visit-proclaims him to be The Worlds Most Photographed Squirrel
Here are a few of his other disguises:
Mafiosa Squirrel

A disguise so clever I am not sure what it is!

It will be a long campaign.  New fronts are opening up all the time (Community Garden planting has begun). Given their ridiculous advantage in numbers and their support by a "cute" enabling mass media, our final victory is in doubt.

But we shall soldier on.  No matter how long it takes we will persevere.  Even if at the distant end we raise an arthritic arm to feebly pitch a trowel at some fuzzy thief making off with the last morsel of our garden produce.

Until then, visit the Sugar Bush site.  It is a marvel of human ingenuity.

And a good chance to get to know the Enemy.

Friday, June 3, 2011

Know your Royal Navy Toasts

The tradition of toasting, in the sense of offering a dedication to a shared round of communal drinking has ancient roots.  In various cultures it was not uncommon to pour off the first bit of a drink “for the gods” or to offer a libation in the form of pouring some wine onto an altar.  So, where does toast fit in?

In England it was common to flavor wine with a bit of browned or spiced toast.  In the early 1700s a poet wrote of a lady whose name would “flavor a wine like spiced toast”.  This seems to be the origin of associating a specific individual or institution with the ceremony of “toasting”.

Unless there are foreign visitors in the wardroom it is forbidden to propose any toast prior to the Loyal Toast to the health of the British Sovereign.  If there are foreign officers present it is considered good manners to drink to the health of their head of state first.

Never clink glasses.  If a glass is heard ringing it is said to herald the death of a sailor.  If you stop the ring the bad omen is converted to the death of two soldiers.  That is not considered to be much of an issue.

On shore non drinkers may politely drink a toast in water.  But aboard ship this is bad luck, and suggests that the object of the toast will die by drowning.

There are, or were, specific toasts for each day of the week.  As related to me by a couple of Royal Navy Lieutenants* at a pub some years back:

Sunday:  “Absent friends, absent friends.”

Monday: “Our ships at sea.”

Tuesday:  “Our men.”

Wednesday:  “Ourselves, as no one else is likely to bother.”  Alternate version: “Ourselves, Our Swords, Old Ships”  Old ships being a reference to shipmates.

Thursday:  “A bloody war or a sickly season.”  (The death of more senior officers was the most reliable route to promotion in the age of sail).

Friday:  “A willing foe and sea room.”

Saturday:  “To our wives and sweethearts.”  This is the only toast said to still be in common use, as is the customary response from the youngest officer present “May they never meet!”

*In the Navy the rank is pronounced much as it would be in America.  Lieutenant derives from the French phrase en lieu tenant, or holding a place for another.  The British army uses the variant “Leff-tenant” for perverse reasons known only to themselves.

Wednesday, June 1, 2011

An appeal to the gods

The fun part of digging at Vindolanda is that things turn up that have no business being there.  None.  Late last season, at a spot about 30 feet from where I had been digging, an amazing altar turned up. 
Religious shrines were always, and I mean always, set up outside the fort.  This was inside, and appears to be the only known example of this occurring in the entire Roman Empire.  Nobody has the slightest idea why.

The inscription reads:

I.O.M.
Dolocheno
Sulpicius Pu
dens praef
coh IIII Gall
V. S. L. M.

The Romans were rather big on abbreviations.   

Translated: "To Jupiter Best and Greatest of Doliche, Sulpicius Pudens, prefect of the Fourth Cohort of Gauls, fulfilled his vow gladly and deservedly".

The V.S.L.M. is shorthand for the bit about fulfilling the vow gladly and deservedly.

Last month while on a rain delay at the Vindolanda dig I was chatting with the folks washing pot shards.  This interesting bit of graffiti had just been discovered on wash up.


Lets zoom in a bit closer, and highlight the scratched on lettering:

We for sure have a V and and M, with an L probable.  (Yes, in archeology you have to be ever so careful not to create order from disorder).  There is also a definite A.

By cranking up the resolution and tinkering with the contrast I am about 95% sure I am seeing an S between the V and the L. (although the L looks a bit less certain in this view)
It looks as if the S was scratched in there, but not hard enough to get all the way through the glaze.  Or perhaps there was still a bit of mud/staining that had not been scrubbed off.

So, it seems unlikely that this could simply be somebody scratching their initials on "their" drinking/cooking vessel.  Instead it appears to be a "poor man's" votive vessel, something you would use to either pour or to receive offerings (wine usually) when requesting the favor of the gods.

Much of the literature surviving the Roman era comes to us through the filter of Christianity.  It was the material that the monks deemed worthy or at least not outright heresy.  So we are left to speculate on the nature of religion in Roman times.  One interpretation is that it was not a Covenant between a Deity and a Chosen People, but more a personal contract between a man and a god.  As such it was more an individual, private matter, and this otherwise rather humble artifact certainly has the "personal touch" to it.

 
More on altars and such can be found at the Vindolanda.com site link.