Jupiter, best and greatest – Revisiting Maryport’s ritual pits

19 mins read

New excavations have revealed why the country’s finest set of Jupiter altars were committed to the earth in gigantic pits. Ian Haynes and Tony Wilmott explained the contents of the Maryport pits to Matthew Symonds.

‘Never before’, the great Hadrian’s Wall scholar John Collingwood Bruce declared in July 1870 ‘were the antiquaries of this district able to rejoice over such a sudden acquisition of treasure as we have before us to-day.’ The objects he celebrated were a far cry from popular perceptions of treasure. Neither made of precious metal, nor portable, they had been crafted with varying degrees of competence from blocks of local St Bees sandstone. Yet treasure they most certainly were.

Discovered by chance three months earlier, they were pulled from a field 300m north-east of the Roman fort at Maryport. Although not physically attached to Hadrian’s Wall, this key installation lay within a cordon of fortlets and towers extending along the Cumbrian coast, beyond the endpoint of the frontier wall near Bowness-on-Solway. The owner of the land, wishing to improve its productivity, had ordered the ploughshare driven deeper into the soil than ever before. There it repeatedly struck large stones, whose locations were noted for removal. But when one of them was lifted, the farmhands found a carved altar underneath.

Investigation revealed that the altar lay within one of 57 pits, which between them produced a haul of 17 Roman altars. The letters IOM, cut boldly into the uppermost line of most of the inscriptions, identified them as dedications to Iuppiter Optimus Maximus: Jupiter best and greatest, the most exalted god in the Roman pantheon. ‘Let us hope’ Collingwood Bruce concluded ‘that next year’s ploughing may be as successful as this.’ Yet there would be a considerable delay before excavators turned their attention to the pits once more, and it was only this summer that Ian Haynes, Project Director, and Tony Wilmott, Site Director, returned to the findspot, with a team of professionals, students and local volunteers.

 Altered information

Ever since the discovery of the pits, debate has raged about why they were dug. Collingwood Bruce favoured a date during the reign of Emperor Commodus (AD 176-192) for interring the altars, while another great frontier authority, R G Collingwood, believed that a supposed invasion in AD 196 had been anticipated by a garrison fearful its dedications would be desecrated. Others have argued that ‘honourable burial’ was part of an annual cycle of altar erection and deposition, or that groups were periodically buried en masse to free up space for new benefactions. But while dates and circumstances vary, all of these readings carry a common theme: the altars were buried for their own protection. Entrusting them to the earth was a final act of devotion. The pits, in short, were ritual.

Such special treatment would fit with the importance of the altars to the annual religious life of the fort. The inscriptions reveal that the altars were dedicated by the commanding officers of the different units garrisoned at Maryport. They are most likely survivors of an altar series that was added to once a year, either on January 3rd, or the anniversary of an Emperor’s succession. On these propitious dates an offering, most likely an ox, was made to Jupiter, to guarantee the health of both the Emperor, and his empire.

The ancient vaults stand open

Dramatic though the 1870 cache of altars was, it was only the latest in a long line of relics to be unearthed in the vicinity of Maryport fort. As early as 1599 the great Elizabethan historian William Camden noted that the site was being mined for ‘altars, stones with inscriptions, and statues’, which the landowner ‘I. Sinhous’ or John Senhouse ‘hath placed orderly about his house’. Two centuries later, in 1772, another Senhouse, this time Humphrey, employed a man fulltime to unearth the interior of the fort. The fruits of these centuries of prospection formed the Netherhall Collection.

In 1998 the owner, Joe Scott Plummer, placed the collection in the care of the Senhouse Museum Trust, which now administers the Roman Museum at Maryport. This wonderful museum, adjacent to the fort, contains the finest assemblage of Roman material inBritainstill in private hands. Amongst the many altars, inscriptions and sculptures that grace its gallery are 22 altars to Jupiter (23 if a fragmentary example is included) of which the pit altars form the backbone. Other highlights include representations of a horned warrior god and an altar that was imaginatively recut to form the ‘serpent stone’ (above, left).

The Trust has sponsored TimeScape’s geophysical survey and the current excavations as part of its programme to aid understanding of the collection.

So why were the altars buried there? At its simplest the answer seems self-evident, the altars are heavy, and they were interred there because they stood nearby. In 1939 it was suggested that the altars lined the edge of a parade ground, where soldiers could witness the annual affirmation of their support for the imperial project. Accepted for decades, it is only in recent years that doubts about the parade ground theory have gathered momentum. The undulating ground nearby is hardly suitable, while a far more appropriate plot lay to the south of the fort. Until the 1920s it even featured an earthwork known as Pudding Pie Hill, due to its resemblance to the popular local suet dessert. Levelled to make way for housing, the mound was well suited to serve as an elevated tribunal from which the commanding officer could address his men.

Fresh discoveries on the continent sowed further doubts. Excavations near the fort at Osterburken inGermanyrevealed a group of altars set, not beside a parade ground, but in orderly ranks within a fenced enclosure adjacent to a temple. Study of the Maryport altars by Peter Hill indicated that these too, were intended to stand in a row. But once it was accepted that the altars did not need to stand next to a parade ground, the evidence for one collapsed. Suddenly the hunt for an explanation for the altars’ location was back on.

Records of the pits themselves were little help. Although Collingwood Bruce published a plan, it was little more than a sketch, showing a seemingly haphazard mass of circles. Based on a more detailed survey held in the Senhouse family archive, the original was probably lost when Netherhall, their ancestral seat, burned down in 1973. Michael Jarret remembered seeing the plan in the 1960s, and stated that unlike Bruce’s reproduction, it depicted intersecting pits. Between 2000 and 2004 geophysical survey of the fort and extramural settlement, or vicus, was undertaken by TimeScape. Further geophysics, with Kris Strutt of Southampton University participating alongside TimeScape, took place in 2010. Together, the surveys revealed a far more extensive vicus than was previously suspected, and indications that the pits were ringed by a circular enclosure ditch.

Revisiting the pits

Faced with this combination of new discoveries, growing doubts, and incomplete archive information, fresh excavation offered the only way to understand the circumstances surrounding the burial of this unique altar series. It was this aim that brought Ian Haynes, Tony Wilmott and their team to Maryport, in a project funded by the Senhouse Museum Trust and NewcastleUniversity, carried out on land owned by Hadrian’s Wall Heritage Ltd. Hopes were high that the excavations could solve the uncertainties, and perhaps even unearth the eighteenth altar to come from the pits. With the first season recently concluded, our knowledge of the altars’ context has already been revolutionised, and taken in a completely unexpected direction.

While Collingwood Bruce’s hope that further ploughing would yield another archaeologically rich harvest was in vain, it was not for want of trying. Regular ploughing of the field in which the pits lay only ceased six years ago, and its scars were all too evident during the excavation. Slight traces of beamslots from timber-framed Roman buildings had been truncated and badly abraded, leaving the structures difficult to understand. Fortunately the all-important pits had survived both ploughshare, and Victorian antiquarians better than hoped. The very first pits encountered by modern archaeologists highlighted the unreliability of Collingwood Bruce’s plan. Visible as dark patches in the trench, it was immediately obvious they were square, unlike the perfect circles speckling his sketch. They were also massive, measuring on average 1.2m square.

It soon became apparent that the Victorians had sought out the pits using a probe to detect large stones beneath the surface. On occasion this led to disappointment, as mixed in with the glacial till soil was a large number of granite erratics, carried from Dalbeattie by the ice. Here and there the probe would strike one of these natural erratics and the antiquarians would eagerly begin to dig, only to abandon work when they realised their mistake. More importantly, the modern excavations quickly established that the Victorians were equally prepared to abandon their endeavours when digging genuine Roman features. To the antiquarians’ disappointment, 48 of the 57 pits only contained altar fragments or loose stones. Judged ‘barren’, the Victorians assumed that their contents had already been rifled, and left Roman layers partially intact once they had contented themselves that no altars were present, or when they encountered large, unwieldy stones.

Several of the pits preserved a mysterious green stain measuring about a Roman foot square at their base. The source of this discolouration was established when a pit was discovered that had only been partially emptied in 1870, when those clearing it hit upon a large erratic that they were either unable or unwilling to shift. Less easily deterred, the modern archaeologists lifted the boulder using a combination of chocks and levers. The reward was a pit still one-third full of its Roman fill, which was clearly distinct from the darker soil redeposited after the Victorian digging was concluded. Clearly visible within this Roman layer was a foot-wide slot tinged green at the edges. It was the unmistakable marker of a huge post that had been set within the pit, and eventually rotted there. The presence of this post hole, and the remnants of identical features in other pits began to cast a very different light on their function.

To bury Jupiter, not honour him  

Such suspicions were confirmed when the team detected a pit that had evaded the antiquarians, making it the only one entirely excavated using modern techniques. While the hoped for eighteenth altar was not forthcoming, the stones in the pit proved to have been carefully packed around a timber posthole. The conclusion was inescapable: the pits were not about Jupiter, or his altars, at all. They were simply supports for a massive timber edifice. Far from an act of reverence, the altars were no more than a convenient source of ballast.

Although only a portion of the structure, or structures, the pits supported has been exposed, their scale leaves no doubt about the ambition of the builders. Whatever the building was, it occupied a very visible location on the highest point of the ridge. This would have been a major monument, and Jarrett’s memory of intersecting pits raises the tantalising prospect of multiple phases. If so, the ease with which the excavated pits can be divided into a line of six, and a curving group of four may be significant. Are these the remains of two successive monumental structures?

Just as important as establishing the plan of the monument is dating it. Some indication of this came from the curving boundary ditch seen on the geophysical survey. This cut through an earlier cobbled surface, and contained sherds of Crambeck grey ware and parchment ware, from Yorkshire, and Black-Burnished 1 ware manufactured in the Poole area of Dorset. Together, these pottery vessels indicate a late 4th century AD date for the layer. Accompanying them in the ditch fill was a single altar fragment. Discovered by Jane Laskey, the Senhouse Museum curator who joined the excavation team, it seems reasonable to conclude that if broken fragments of altar were knocking around in the 4th century, it was because this was when they were being reused for post packing.

A second altar fragment was also uncovered in the excavations. Found in a pit that had, unusually, been crudely overcut by its original excavators, the piece came from the corner of an altar, and featured a six-petal rosette decoration. While the Maryport altars share a similar style, each is uniquely decorated, and a careful search of the museum quickly revealed that the remainder of the altar was on display there. Dedicated by Marcus Maenius Agrippa of the Cohors I Hispanorum, fromSpain, the team were delighted to have a fixed findspot for one of the 1870 altars. But they were in for a shock. The altar was not one of the 17 found that year, instead it was first recorded in 1725, serving as the base of an ornamental sundial in Netherhall. This stunning discovery revealed that the pits had been mined for their altars for centuries, and explained why some — including that containing the altar fragment — were crudely overcut. They had been robbed over a century before the 1870 pits were dug. It also meant that the team had found their much-coveted eighteenth pit altar — even if it had already been on display for almost 300 years.

That the altars could meet such a fate during the Roman period need not be surprising. While it is tempting to attribute their ignominious recycling to the rise of Christianity, the habit of cutting monumental inscriptions had largely died out on the northern frontier almost a century earlier. By the late third century, still well within the ‘Pagan period’, gravestones, building inscriptions, and altars were already being reused for purposes as diverse as shoring up Hadrian’s Wall or creating hearth bases. As such, the fate of the altars was not necessarily a deliberate slight to Jupiter. Objects originally fashioned to fulfil the religious ceremonies that underpinned the Empire had simply found a new role as foundations of a more literal kind.

This article was published in CA 259

Source: Ian Haynes and Tony Wilmott. With thanks to Newcastle University and the Senhouse Museum Trust. CA is grateful for the hospitality of the excavation team.

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