Regular readers may remember that we’ve been to Maryport a couple of times before on this blog: the first time mostly to admire a very battered old tombstone and the second time to report that more digging was scheduled for the fort. The excavators were hoping to find out more about the splendid altars to Jupiter on display (along with that old tombstone) in the Senhouse Museum.
Some of these altars are in such fine condition that they might almost have been cut last week. Their miraculous preservation is the result of having spent most of their lives underground, safely buried by the Romans themselves. Nobody knew exactly why or when, but it was clear that they had been placed there with some degree of care. It brought a moving scene to mind – proud standards flapping in the sea breezes off the Solway, the troops all dressed in their best, lined up for an annual ritual of burial and sacrifice on a new altar presided over by the Commanding Officer. Or perhaps a unit ordered to close down the fort that had once been their home, hurrying to bury the sacred altars lest they be despoiled by the locals, and marching away never to return.
Well, they’ve dug. And as anyone who’s been following the story will now know, the ‘sacred burial’ theory has been completely overturned. According to the excavators’ final update, “the Maryport pits containing complete altars are, in fact, massive post-pits in which the altars have been used simply as packing. There was no ritual deposition of these stones – when buried they were simply convenient foundation packing material.”
You can read the whole of the excavators’ update here.* It’s a fascinating insight into how a theory that had seemed so plausible - not to mention romantic – was overturned by a closer look at the evidence. It’s also a reminder that our sometimes sweeping assertions about ‘Roman Britain’ cover a period of several hundred years. To one Roman building crew, the Jupiter who had been all-powerful to their predecessors was simply a handy source of stone.
Until, of course, somebody comes along with another explanation.
Meanwhile I’m mightily glad I haven’t written a ritual-burial scene into any of the novels.
*There’s a good article in October’s ‘Current Archaeology’ too.