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:

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 site link.


Harry said...

Reading & enjoying. That is a primo find!

Hadriana's Treasures said...

optime! Brill! You could say that the chap who wrote it was a 'notarius' - a short hand writer...excellent find. ;)

rob said...

I wonder if the word might be "ausim" ("I would dare")? If it were preceded by a "non" perhaps it is the vestige of a challenge to potential thieves, although with it's being in the optative mood might reinforce the notion that this is some sort of votive offering.

Tacitus2 said...

That would tend to explain the tentative L.
I have not been able to find much on roman pottery inscriptions....

rob said...

Nor I. But I could easily imagine it fitting into a soldier's motto (as in one of the Erskines' arms, "Ausim et Confido"?) or as an acknowledgement of his temerity in seeking the gods'to intervene on his behalf.