Contextualising ritual practice in later prehistoric and Roman Britain

Goldberg, David Martin (2009) Contextualising ritual practice in later prehistoric and Roman Britain. PhD thesis, University of Glasgow.

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For much of the twentieth century, Romano-Celtic syncretism has been considered an unproblematic fusion of polytheistic belief systems assumed to preserve prehistoric Celtic religion and yet also provide a key form of evidence for the assimilative process of Romanisation. However, given the abrupt disjunction in ritual practice and especially changes in material form, Chapter 1 proposes that the evidence from the Roman period and its relationship to pre-conquest religion needs to be re-evaluated, not assumed. A reconsideration of syncretic or 'native' religion in Roman Britain will be accomplished by focusing on the usual categories of Roman period artefactual evidence, including iconography, inscriptions, ritual sites and votive offerings. The wealth of religious material from the frontier zones of Central Britain will be repositioned within a discussion of ritualised practices, hybridised identities and contextualised landscapes.

Chapter 2 will outline how the study of the Roman conquest and colonisation of Britain has affected the study of religion and especially Romano-Celtic syncretism. Previous approaches will be reviewed, as well as the implications of post-colonial theory.

Chapter 3 will develop a holistic methodology for studying ancient religion building on theoretical approaches of contextualisation, ritualisation and hybridisation. The general tendency in archaeological discourse to separate the evidence for ritual practice and religion from the wider socio-cultural background compounds the specific problems arising from imperial colonisation and ethnic dichotomies. Considering the socioeconomic, socio-political and landscape context of ritual practice provides an integrated methodology for interpretation that has the potential to over-ride dichotomies such as Roman and Native or ritual and practical.
Chapter 4 will begin with one of the timeless interpretations of ancient religion, which is a concern with fertility. This paramount ritual motivation is often framed in general terms, but this chapter will demonstrate that more specific interpretations can be offered by examining the socio-economic context of ritual practice. The relationship between sheep husbandry, pastoralist production and iconographic expression in Roman Britain will help contextualise the fertility interpretation of the genii cucullati, associated matres, and the divine couple of Mercury and a goddess with a vessel.

Chapter 5 considers the regionalised distribution of votive altars dedicated to the local deities of the Hadrian's Wall frontier zone. A case study of inscriptional practice on the 61 votive altars dedicated to the variously spelled theonym of Vitiris will explore identity and the socio-political context of ritual practice. Discussions of religion in Roman Britain barely consider Vitiris despite being the most popular local cult from the frontier zone and in terms of inscriptional evidence second only to Jupiter for all of Roman Britain. A floruit in the late second and early third century AD and the multi-cultural milieu of the northern frontier provide the socio-political context for the local cult of Vitiris.

Chapter 6 considers the landscape context of ritual practice and evidence for votive deposition from both pre-and post conquest Central Britain. The landscape context of votive deposits, especially votive altars, and other 'stray' finds from non-military contexts, have not received great attention from Roman studies. A reliance on classical and early medieval texts has led to interpretations of Celtic religion as a natural religion with frequent emphasis on the essential sacred nature of water. A frequent focus on watery contexts in the archaeological study of hoarding and votive deposition has also created binary distinctions in interpretation between wet and dry contexts. However, there would have been considerably more complexity to the bodies of knowledge associated with these important ritualised practices. A variety of spatial scales will be used to contextualise material culture that has often been labelled as 'stray' finds. Examining this material through wider, regional, topographic and hydrographic analysis will allow more to be said about the context of deposition, and show the long-term ritualisation of the landscapes of Central Britain.

The final chapter will summarise the inter-dependence of, and interaction between, society, the economy, and the landscape, generating the holistic methodological approach of vernacular religion. As befits a wide-ranging study of religious material in an imperial context, Chapter 7 will shift to a British and western provincial scale in order to place the local and regional case studies into their wider context. The contextual categories allow analysis to shift from everyday socio economic practices, to life-span concerns and identity construction of socio-political context, to the landscape and longue duree. Following these themes from prehistory into the post-conquest period will acknowledge not just continuity, abandonment and assimilation, but also adaptation, innovation, and renovation; renewal as the complex "reconciliation of tradition and innovation" (Woolf 2001a: 182). Through a careful critical evaluation of vernacular religion, Roman archaeology has a chance to move beyond the dichotomies of religious syncretism - not by using vernacular descriptively as a simple replacement of 'native', but by considering the context specific processes of hybridisation and ritualised practice.

Item Type: Thesis (PhD)
Qualification Level: Doctoral
Subjects: C Auxiliary Sciences of History > CC Archaeology
Colleges/Schools: College of Arts > School of Humanities > Archaeology
Supervisor's Name: Supervisor, not known
Date of Award: 2009
Depositing User: Miss Louise Annan
Unique ID: glathesis:2009-6649
Copyright: Copyright of this thesis is held by the author.
Date Deposited: 27 Aug 2015 09:20
Last Modified: 21 Mar 2019 17:17

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