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Introducing Ritual, Religion and the Roman Wall

An introduction to the week's activities and looking at the religion, cults and rituals of the varied populations around the Wall worked.
Welcome back. This week we’re going to be studying ritual, religion, and the Roman Wall. Now in 1735, a nine-year-old girl discovered a remarkable silver object in the river bank of the River Tyne at Corbridge. The silver object– and we’ve got a replica of it here– is known today as the Corbridge Lanx. “Lanx” is Latin for “tray,” although how in fact this object was originally used we’re not actually sure. But what’s very striking about the lanx is its decoration. It is full of stock mythological imagery. And much of this would be familiar to anyone who knows a little bit about the gods of Rome. We have here, on the left-hand side, the goddess Artemis, known to the Romans as Diana.
And you can see here her hunting bow. There’s an arrow there, a hunting dog, and a luckless stag. Next to her, Athena, known to the Romans as Minerva. And you can see here the helmet and the Gorgon on the breast plate– distinctive features of that deity. And over on the far right-hand side we have the god Apollo with his lyre and the griffin– an animal often accompanying Apollo in art. The two figures in the centre are rather harder to actually identify with conviction. But the general consensus is we’re probably looking at Leto– the mother of Artemis and Apollo– and Ortygia, a woman who was transformed into the island of Delos.
And in fact, the imagery here points to this being associated with the sanctuary of Apollo on the Greek island of Delos. Now, that association with the figures is reinforced with a stylised shrine building and two altars. Altars are an essential part of ritual in the cult landscapes of the Roman Empire. How the lanx got into to the bank of the River Tyne we’ll never know, although we are aware that a couple of other pieces of silver were found in the vicinity in the 18th century. What we can say, though, is that this is a fourth-century piece, and it’s the kind of thing that we might reasonably imagine in the house of a wealthy official about this time.
Indeed it’s the kind of setting that we’ll be visualising when we do our dining seminar next week. But what’s interesting about this period is that, of course, by the latter part of the fourth century, Christianity was very widely accepted in official quarters in the Roman world. So how would this pagan iconography have sat alongside that? Well, that raises interesting questions on the use of religious symbolism and the changing patterns in ritual and religion that were taking place on the frontier. An interesting point here, of course, is that by the fourth century, Christianity had been widely adopted– certainly in official circles. And this raises the question of how this silver would have been received, presented, and used in that cultural milieu.
This week, we’ll be looking at ritual and religion in the Roman Wall Zone. We’ll be looking at how deities were depicted– not just these more classically familiar deities, but a whole range of local, indigenous deities which come from quite different traditions. We’ll look at the process of religious syncretism, whereby ideas of different origin come together and inform one another. And we’ll also be looking at the ways in which worship was conducted. We’ll be looking at altars such as these and learning how to read them, understanding what their message was. Finally, we’ll look at Christianity– Christianity as it emerges, an increasingly important force in the Wall Zone. We’ll be joined by my colleagues Dr.
Jane Webster and Lindsay Allason-Jones to discuss some of the most familiar and some of the most unusual pieces of religious art from the frontier zone.
This week we will be examining ritual and religion as practised on and around Hadrian’s Wall, some of which may appear very exotic and mysterious.
As with all the other elements we study on this course, the rituals and religions of the Wall testify both to a cosmopolitan population and dynamic change. When the Wall was built, Roman society was firmly polytheistic, open to belief in many gods, but by the end our period, the early fifth century AD, Christianity had become the dominant religion amongst imperial officials and across much of the empire.
This week, we learn how to read the archaeological and textual evidence for religious practice and discuss how close we can ever hope to get to the religious experience of those in the frontier communities of Roman Britain. On our journey we will encounter classical deities whose names are still familiar even today, mysterious gods and goddesses (including some that are known only from the Wall) and early evidence for Christianity in Britain.
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Hadrian's Wall: Life on the Roman Frontier

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