Wednesday, 8 August 2012

Human Sacrifice in a Leicestershire Field? Narrativising a Romano-British TOT-ring

The Leicester Mercury reports that:
A rare silver ring dedicated to the bloodthirsty Celtic god Totatis has been unearthed near the site of the Hallaton hoard of Roman and Iron Age coins[...]  in a field in south Leicestershire by metal detectorist Bill Martin [...] from Wolverhampton. 
It was found when the site was being searched by the Bloxwich Research and Metal Detector Club, from the West Midlands. Mr Martin was not learning about the history of his own locality, he'd driven some 88 km to metal detect in a field several counties away. Once again we see the sites where nationally important treasures have been located being targeted by other artefact hunters, counting on the discovery of similarly valuable finds. Surely these sites and the areas around should be protected from such cynical exploitation? Anyway somebody is happy that this object has been hoiked out of the ground:
Totatis ring expert Adam Daubney, of Lincolnshire County Council, is compiling a survey on them saying the vast majority are found in Lincolnshire. He said: "It is great to see another example turn up within the boundaries of the Corieltavi tribe. This makes it the 74th example on my database." A Leicestershire County Council spokesman said [...] "It's probable Totatis was worshipped at Hallaton as he was one of the main deities and is often equated with Roman god Mars." The Roman poet Lucan said devotees indulged in human sacrifice, plunging victims head first into a vat of liquid until they drowned.
The PAS seems to have a fixation with human sacrifice doesn't it? I really would like to see to "Totatis expert" Daubney discuss the actual, real evidence for these statements. It seems to me that here we have just another example of the dumbed-down "scissors and paste history" that the PAS seem to specialise in. We have an attempt to give decontextualised artefacts some "narrative value" by ignoring (because non-existant in the case of hoiked-out dugups) by mix-and-matching with classical and Medieval (in this case) texts. But done in a way totally ignoring modern source-criticism and the methodology of using such texts in modern Classical historiography. First of all, the name of the 'god' discused by Lucan was not "TOTatis".

Lucan (M. Annaeus Lucanus 39 AD - 65 AD) came from Hispania Baetica, was writing between AD 60-65. The work in question his epic poem, Pharsalia (labelled De Bello civili in the manuscripts), told in poetic form the story of the civil war between Julius Caesar and Pompey in 49-48 BC, so 110 years earlier in another region of the world entirely. And it was a poem, not history. Toutatis or Teutates is mentioned in a poetic introduction along with a whole host of other names (including the Sarmatians) in Book one (I.445) which primarily is intended to show the world at peace before Caesar crossed the Rubicon. Basically what we have here is a list of Early Imperial Roman stereotypes about their barbarian neighbours:
Thou, too, oh Treves,
Rejoicest that the war has left thy bounds.
Ligurian tribes, now shorn, in ancient days
First of the long-haired nations, on whose necks
Once flowed the auburn locks in pride supreme;
And those who pacify with blood accursed
Savage Teutates, Hesus' horrid shrines,
And Taranis' altars cruel as were those
Loved by Diana, goddess of the north;
All these now rest in peace.
 [Teutates horrensque feris altaribus Esus

et Taranis Scythicae non mitior ara Dianae

[it actually says Diana was goddess of the 'Scythians' rather than northerners]

Note that Lucan is not referring to these three gods as a 'triad" (as some New-Agey-celtic-lore-writers have it), nor as gods of all the Celts, or even of one tribe. They were apparently more or less well-known probably regional gods, and Lucan lays stress merely on the fact that it is said that they were worshipped with human sacrifice, before moving on to other topics.

There is a huge body of literature, wholly  ignored in what the PAS are doing with their artefacts about just how much classical authors knew about the geography and social structure of the regions they wrote about beyond their borders. More critical analysts of the written sources conclude that Roman and Greek writers were prone to project generic visions of barbarian traits onto foreign peoples, thereby in the minds of their readers confirming their own “cultural superiority” (like when we read US ACCG lobbyists writing their negative and generic stereotypes about the brown-skinned inhabitants of "source-nations"). While I suppose I cannot blame British archaeologists for not knowing the extensive body of this sort of analytical literature which is in Polish, I would have expected to see some sort of critical approach adopted even by British archaeologists to such 'records'. On the other hand, if my suggestion that in the PAS milieu the artefacts are frequently used to illustrate the written sources this makes sense, if the decontextualised artefacts are secondary to the written records, then it becomes more difficult for them to dissect the latter.

Where Lucan got the names from is unclear, though (as with most classical "geographic" accounts) its unlikely to have been from any personal observation, but hearsay.  In his enthusing about finding an inscription (which dot distribution maps indicate cluster in his region) 'Totatis expert Daubney' even mentions inscriptions on altars - without noting whether there was any evidence that these altars had been used for human sacrifice in Roman Britain. But was Lucan writing of the British or the Gauls? What has Lucan got to do with a local group's religion, and furthermore (since the rings are dated second and third centuries) two hundred years after his own death? Actually the only possible answer to that question is 'absolutely nothing'.

And what about this "document in the ninth century" which describes worshippers of Toutates offering human sacrifices to him by "plunging his victims headfirst into a vat of liquid until drowned"? The text referred to is the Berne Scholia, an early Medieval commentary on Lucan preserved in the Burgerbibliothek of Bern, Switzerland. In the manuscript (which in fact may be tenth century rather than ninth) there are glosses on Lucan's original text. So, coming up to a thousand years later a Christian writer (probably) in a monastery, or monastic school, was adding what he thinks Lucan was writing about that horrible pagan religion. One of the unfortunate things about the study of European pre-Christian religious beliefs is that we are so dependent on the interpretation of Christian writers who (with few exceptions) were entirely negative towards the misguided "devil worship" of past populations. Once again, we are dealing with stereotypes rather than any fruit of ethnographic observations. Some have linked the information in this literary addition to the original text (death by fire, water and hanging [air]) with the notion of "threefold death" (and of course the New Ageyists link this with the picture on the side of the Gundestrup cauldron - interpreting it as "Celtic" rather than "Thracian"). The 64million dollar question of course is what the scholar who annotated the manuscript of Lucan somewhere in central Europe actually knew about the vanished cult of a god worshipped in a different world a thousand years earlier in a totally different region of the continent. The answer to that is - because there is nothing to go on - we do not know, though it has been suggested that both the author of the Berne document might have been aware of a source now lost which was also known to some of the authors of the written versions of the Old Irish myths. Who knows?

Now a Polish visitor to England could drop a ring inscribed "God Help Legia Football Team" in a field near Leicester, it would not mean either that God was worshipped in that field (the owner might have gone there to relieve himself after a visit to the pub) or that Legia played a match there. Why does an isolated ring found in a field mean that "Totatis was worshipped at Hallaton"?  That is just unsupportable by anything that can be found with a metal detector.

The photo (from the Leicester Mercury) makes it look as if the ring has been wire-brushed after finding, has it?

Whatever, it is surely clear that all this guff by the Portable Antiquities Scheme connecting a finger-ring with "TOT" on it (even if it is expanded to  'DEO TOTA [...] FELIX') with human sacrifice  is stretching the evidence beyond archaeology into pure fiction unrelated to the actual evidence before them, which is an isolated decontextualised object found with a metal detector.

Just what is all this uncontrolled story-writing actually achieving? Certainly not preservation of the archaeology of a field "near where the Hallaton Hoard was found".

Leicester Mercury, 'Rare silver ring unearthed near site of Hallaton hoard', August 07, 2012.
Brett Hammond, 'Keep a Sharp Eye Out for Totatis', Treasure Hunting, January 2009, Page 44.

Vignette: Gundestrup dunking

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