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Mysterious Stone Altar Discovered in Roman Fortress

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By M Dee Dubroff     Jul 28, 2009 in Lifestyle
What ancient secrets are hidden in the massive stone relic discovered in a Roman fort in northern England? The figure on the altar represents a favored deity among Roman soldiers. Read on, but don’t do as the Roman did.
According to news sources, the fort of Vindolanda was built across the north of Britain from Carlisle to Newcastle-on-Tyne under orders of the Emperor Hadrian between 122-30 A.D to ward off invaders from modern-day Scotland.Weighing 1.5 tons, the four-foot high ornately carved stone relic depicts on one side a jar and a shallow dish, and on the opposite side, a god-like figure standing on a bull, holding a thunderbolt in one hand and a battle axe in the other. It is believed that this figure represents the Anatolian god, Juppiter of Doliche.
This particular god had several manifestations. Known to the Romans as Juppiter Dolichenus, it was originally an ancient weather god the peoples of the Middle East called Hadad and the Hitites referred to as Teshab. Roman soldiers favored the god’s war-like interpretation.
In the words of archaeologist Andrew Birley:
“What should have been part of the rampart mound near to the north gate of the fort has turned out to be an amazing religious shrine.The Vindolanda shrine is unique as it is situated within the walls of the fort, something which has yet to be encountered elsewhere. This casts new light on ritual spaces inside Roman forts.”
Excavators have also discovered an inscription that indicates that the altar was dedicated to the Dolichenus god by "Sulpicius Pudens, prefect of the Fourth Cohort of Gauls.
Birley believes that Sulpicius Pudens, who was the known commanding officer of the Roman regiment based at Vindolanda in the third century, may have dedicated the expensive stone to the god in thanks for fulfilling a vow. This was a common practice at the time.
The discovery is important because in Birley’s words:
“There are absolutely no literary references to Dolichenus, so all that we know about the religion is based on some 300 surviving inscriptions and sculptures from different parts of the Roman Empire. Since the worship of Dolichenus is not exclusively military, it is quite possible that all members of the military community, including non-combatants, may have worshiped at the shrine/temple and enjoyed the feasts held there.”
The shrine at Vindolanda represents just one of thousands of artifacts discovered at the ancient fort. Home to the Romans from 85 A.D. until about 410 A.D., the fort contains the largest early archive of Latin documents (more than 1,500 documents known as "Vindolanda tablets") related to military movements. Other discoveries that give insight into the daily lives of Roman soldiers include letters, written in ink on wood, asking for warm clothing and socks.
It is estimated that it may take as long as a decade to unravel the many mysteries of the fort at Vindolanda and all of its treasures.
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