In yesterday’s post I talked a bit about how superstitious the Romans were in their lives and what kinds of things they offered to their gods and goddesses to appease them or request particular favours. In an earlier post too I talked about the massive amount of earth and ash samples that were collected during the course of the excavation. You can access that post,  “An Archaeological Moment – The Heart And Soul Of Archaeological Endeavour” at:

One of the things we noticed when collecting the contents of a burnt offering area is that there were always a lot of small round and oblong pieces of charcoal in the ashes. On closer examination theses turned out to be charcoaled figs, dates and pine nuts. They were so well preserved that, where some of the dates were split open, one could see the pit inside and one could also make out the wrinkles on the skin of the figs. We found these over and over again in the ashes. And we wondered what had led to their preservation in this particular state.

Now, although there is an abundant supply of pine nuts in central Germany to be found, dates and figs are another story. Their presence in the burnt offerings indicates a few interesting things. First of all, not being native to Germany, they had to be imported from the Mediterranean area, most likely North Africa. This means that by the time they were offered to the deities in the temple they had quite a journey behind them, crossing the Mediterranean sea and being transported by land and river through perhaps Italy, Spain and France into the province known as Germania. And that with regularity, since they would seem to be affordable and easy to obtain for the people purchasing them in the local markets. Certainly they were not just imported for sacrificial purposes. So, their presence in the offerings indicates that there were well-used regular trade connections all the way from the northern frontier of the Roman Empire to North African area. They were a part of the daily Roman cuisine, that could be purchased along with other imports and indigenous items. Exporting and importing the dates and figs must have been a lucrative and profitable business.

The other interesting thing that needed an explanation was, why were the figs, pine nuts and dates always in the exact same state of charcoaled preservation. And they all were, well burnt through, yet maintaining their original form. After finding these miniature charcoaled briquette-like objects in the first few burnt offering areas we excavated, we knew to expect them and take measures to insure their preservation. And, we were able to propose a theory as to why they were thus preserved. The worshipers would fill a container with fruits, grapes, dates, figs, pine nuts and other offerings of food and then, using oil would set it on fire. This must have been part of a ritual or ceremony that was accompanied by specific prayers or incantations, that followed a set formula within a specific time frame. Once these rituals were performed, and the timing must have been an important factor, the burning offering was doused with water or perhaps even wine, putting the fire out after a set period of time had elapsed, and rendering the dates, figs and pine nuts always charcoaled in the same form. That they were so numerous, and in so many burnt offering ash layers rules out coincidence as a factor. The offering was allowed to burn for a specific period of time and then doused.

Naturally, for the scientists in various fields of research, these charcoaled pieces provided a trove of interesting information during the years of research that followed the excavation. Be that as it may, for those of us doing the excavation work, it was just really cool to see and handle charcoaled figs, dates and pine nuts that were circa 1800 years old, and that were on the menu of the Roman frontier city of Mogontiacum. Little did the soldiers, merchants and workers who worshiped and sacrificed in the temple realize that one day in the distant future, their offerings would do so much more than just appease the gods and goddesses.

Räuchern1Offerings of fruits, dates, figs, pine nuts and other food items would be doused with oil and then set on fire.

Räuchern2After a set ritual was performed water or wine would be poured over the burnt offering, putting the fire out. The ashen contents of the vessels, containing the charcoaled figs, dates an pine nuts, would then be buried.

Datteln Feigen1The charcoaled dates, figs and pine nuts show remarkable detail, despite having been burned.

Datteln Feigen2These dates, figs and pine nuts were part of an offering to the deities some 1800 years ago.

All photos are from the archives of the Direktion Landesarchaölogie ©.


© 2015 nightpoet all rights reserved

Categories: Archaeology, History, Perspective, Photography | Tags: , , , | 2 Comments

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  1. nannus

    That they always came out the same might indicate that the ritual was performed not by ordinary people but maybe by a professional priest whose job it was to do this on behalf of other people and who would routinely do it the same way again and again.
    Is that maybe an instance of the idea that something broken in this world is whole in the other (like the turned over or broken lamps you showed last time)?
    Interesting that dried figs and dates where available here in Germany in those days. I am living in Cologne, so I am also inside the imperium romanum (cives romanus sum :-), although I am actually a barbarian from Hamburg ). Do you know of any such finds from cologne? The kind of oil lams you showed last time are here in large number, I am sure you have seen the ones in Römisch Germanisches Museum, but such fruits look like something special.

    • nannus

      I think it must be civis (?). My last latin lessons are quite some time ago, and as I said, I am a barbarian 🙂

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