I am always fond of saying that people haven’t changed that much over the some 150,000 years we have existed as modern Homo Sapiens. People’s emotions, desires, problems and dreams are not that much different now then they have been all through our history. And one of the constants has always been that as a species we are very superstitious. And our superstitiousness walks hand in hand with our manic obsession with religion. In the long run, none of it does much good. No one beats the reaper.

The Romans were very superstitious. Evidence of this came to light almost every day as my team and I excavated a Roman temple over a period of seventeen months between 1999 and 2001. Judging by the numbers of sacrifices and offerings of objects that the Romans, especially the working classes, the merchants and the soldiers, gave to the gods and goddesses of the temple, they must have been hoping that many of their wishes would be granted and, on the other side of the coin, they were profusely thanking those gods and goddesses for requests that might have been fulfilled.

Their offerings of food and drink covered the whole spectrum of Roman cuisine. The deities were indulged with dates, figs, prunes, pine nuts, various in season fruits, breads, oysters, fish, songbirds, pork, beef, goats and chickens by the wagon-full. Especially chickens. The deities were toasted with ample amounts of wine and appeased with holy water.

The things that people would buy at shops specializing in objects to be used as offerings or grave goods were usually small figurines and oil lamps. Coins and more unique expensive items, some of them having personal value would be brought from home and given to the priests to present to the gods and goddesses. And then there was the shady, basically illegal and forbidden side of their superstitiousness. This involved the creation of what are known as “curse” tablets, pieces of lead upon which a curse or intention of ill will would be scratched. These could be written by the priests, or by the worshiper. Often they would be rolled or folded up and, along with an offering of something edible and perhaps a coin or a lamp, buried in the hopes that the curse would be granted. Most of these curses had to do with people’s desire to get back at someone for an injustice done or perceived. Jilted lovers, persons who had items stolen, or whose financial deals had gone bad because of another’s actions would indulge in this kind of ritual. This sort of activity was frowned upon and outlawed by the emperors, who were superstitious enough themselves not to be wanting the general populace to constantly be cursing them. Of course, the practice continued in secret despite the laws. At our temple it seemed to be quite a flourishing business. We now have a collection of the largest numbers of these tablets in continental Europe. 

So you see, in that respect (and many others), the Romans were much like us. The photo below shows the cleaned surface of an “Offering Niche,” a small walled in area where the offerings would be deposited. You can see the traces of three wooden slats that were the supports for a wooden floor, and in the upper left hand corner there is still a small area of preserved wooden flooring. Along with several oil lamps, some of them deliberately turned upside down to face the underworld, there are several small figurines in various states of preservation. Some of them, once offered to the deities, may have been broken on purpose. Though probably difficult to make out without enlarging the photo there are figurines of two sacrificial bulls once joined together, two lovers standing in an embrace, a dog, the relief head of a centurion (lying on the orange roofing shingle, the body of which was found at a deeper level) and other fragments, along with some small bones. Several lead curse tablets also came to light when this level was removed.

No, it doesn’t seem that we’ve evolved much beyond this kind of behavior in the last two thousand years. People still offer up their hard earned cash, still sacrifice objects to their plethora of imaginary gods. It doesn’t seem to do much good other than to satisfy an inner desire to have more influence over the external circumstances that determine the direction of people’s lives. Wasting time and energy on imaginary beings seems to be a human characteristic and preoccupation. It’s a rut we’re not going to get our wagon wheels out of anytime soon…

000 NichePhoto taken at the excavation of a Roman temple in August 2000.


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Categories: Archaeology, Perspective, Photography | Tags: , , , , | Leave a comment

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