Posted by: aediculaantinoi | July 16, 2013

What’s New Near Hadrian’s Wall?

Since today is–amongst other things–Hadrian’s Wall Day, I thought this might be a good opportunity to share something relatively new that has emerged recently in that general area of Roman Britain.

The Roman fort of Vinovia, on the main street going north to Hadrian’s Wall in County Durham, and now known as Binchester, recently had a discovery from a trash pit that was intriguing: a statue head, shown here.

1_Binchesterstonehead

You can read a bit more on this discovery here. Of course, there are no inscriptions accompanying it, no full figure of the statue, and thus nothing at all to indicate whether it is intended to depict god, man, or anything else. But, the archaeologists (who, I would note here, and over and over again, are not usually linguists, or religion scholars, though they often think they are) who made the discovery have already concluded two possible things: that it is likely the Romano-British god Antenociticus, and that it shows some African features. Here’s a photo of the head of Antenociticus just for comparison:

3_Antenociticus-see-caption-f

And, while there is a similarity–as there would be with any statue head made of the area’s native sandstone like these two are–physical similarity of such a small section of a statue does not make for a positive identification. In this case, suggesting a connection between them would be as likely as suggesting a connection between Zac Efron and Ted Kennedy, given the major jowl-age of the Binchester head in comparison to the head of Antenociticus. Further, to suggest that what may in fact be damage to the Binchester head that makes its lips look fuller or its nose look flatter therefore can be concluded to indicate a possible African origin or influence on the depiction is…well, can you say “racist” with me now? It’s not that Africans couldn’t have been in that part of northern Roman Britain at the time, or that a depiction of an African human or African god might not have been possible, it’s just that it then raises too many other questions to make a clear and straight-forward comparison to Antenociticus.

This is one of the problems I find with Romano-British archaeology generally: there are often assumptions made about the identities of particular figures when there is no accompanying inscriptions or any other information that might shed light on the matter. There are lots of deities that are “assumed” to be Cocidius, for example, when there is no evidence for this other than it looks like a “young hunter god”; and this, to me, is sort of an egregious assumption given that the name of Cocidius only emerges in epigraphy in the very late second or early third century CE, whereas many of the statuary bits often identified as such are from much earlier than that.

Given that it was found in Vinovia, why might it not be, for example, Vinotonus? While the latter god might not have a definite connection to the place based simply on partial morphological agreement in their names, the fact is that the various Vinotonus inscriptions (which syncretize him to Silvanus and Cocidius) are found at Scargill Moor, which is along the River Greta in County Durham…and while Vinovia is along the River Wear, nonetheless it might logically be a more local god than one only attested in one temple up in Condercum (modern Benwell) along the Tyne and Hadrian’s Wall.

So, I would have to conclude the jury is still out on this one…

With any luck, I may have another post later with some poetry for the various gods honored today. I hope everyone is well in the meantime!


Responses

  1. Nice to see a more informed opinion on this find. Sadly, one gets the feeling that identifying which God in particular is depicted in a piece like this is accorded the least importance of all in the interpretive endeavor.

    • I think you’re right, certainly–especially if it is a “relatively obscure” god like Cocidius, Antenociticus, and Vinotonus all are. If it was definitely Mars or Mithras or someone like that, it would be a different story…

      The original find of Antenociticus’ temple was written by some English Reverend in the late 1800s, and his near-exact words toward the end of his article was “We had no idea such a demon as Antenociticus existed prior to now.” While it is obviously biased and incorrect to interpret any deity in this way, nonetheless that discovery and the distinct identity of the entity was taken seriously.

      These days, I suspect the prevailing ironic atheism that is so popular amongst scholars (including, or perhaps especially, religious studies scholars) doesn’t put too much stock in accurate identifications, since “all of the gods never really existed and no one important still worships them anyway.” I’ve in fact heard some papers by certain individuals pretty much openly declare such on a few occasions…

  2. It’s a sad commentary, indeed, when an armchair scholar of the 19th century shows more thoroughness and professionalism than his well-credentialed 21st century successors, but you correctly identify the reason: though the reverend does not share the faith of his Pagan predecessors, he accords more value in principle to the primary data of the religious life than today’s reductionist academics.

  3. […] last month when I talked about a new Romano-British deity head (which, I’d note, probably ISN’T ANTENOCITICUS)? Well, a few stories follow-up on that […]


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