In this far-flung northern corner of the Roman Empire four men go to the expense of having an altar carved. It looks like they were up against it: dedicating the altar to the local North British God Maponus could have been a shrewd ‘hearts and minds’ tactic to win over the locals, but much more likely is that they needed all the help they could get in the face of pestilence and disease. Viewed across 2000 years of history it is poignant to think that this sculpture was their equivalent of both my NHS prescription and my chalice and paten. Four Germans, a local deity and the Emperor of Rome make an intriguing thread in the spiritual cord which binds us to our religious past. If the style and function of the altar seem about as remote as can be from the one’s you will find in any Parish Church today, the presenting human drama is probably much closer to home than we might think. Medicine may have changed beyond all recognition but the human instinct to turn beyond ourselves to something deeper means that the word altar is familiar and not arcane.
And what human story would have brought people to this third century carving of three seated mother goddesses holding bowls on their laps, of whom only two figures now remain? What needs, desires and anxieties taxed the minds of those who gazed upon this sculpture? Were they that much different to our own? And what of the violence and aggression which surely surrounded this primitive Celtic sculpture of a fiercesome ram-horned warrior god? Two millennia have done little or nothing to diminish our tendency to resort to warfare.
And back in the third century what was the religious significance to the Celts of this female pottery head on the neck of a jug? Again, what did it signify to those who were familiar with it, and is this something we would recognise within ourselves today? And what is the story behind this pottery head of a bearded Celtic god? What triumphs and tragedies were played out in the lives of those who gazed upon it, and what did it mean for them? What wellsprings within the human psyche did it tap into and how was it used?
I suspect that this delightful little figure of Bacchus, the Roman god of wine, revelry and fertility, requires much less effort to decipher into contemporary meanings. All of these carvings and representations are an integral part of our spiritual heritage. They meant something to people just like us. Some may scoff at the ‘primitive’ and ‘misguided’ nature of their pagan practices and beliefs, but I prefer to see these artefacts as more of a spiritual mirror in which we see some deep, precious, troubling and truly common parts of human nature reflected back to us across the centuries. When it comes to faith we humans need things we can touch and see and use. They allow us to enter into the mysteries and meanings of life in a deeper way. And they help us to connect with the deepest reality of all.
So what of our Christian faith-based paraphernalia today? Are our digital video installations, DVD’s, Mpegs, labyrinths, photoblogs, communion tables, , fonts, stones, candles, songbooks, high-tech alternative worship and low-tech sunday services really so very different to these ancient pagan spiritual artefacts? And if humanity is still around in another 2000 years, what will anthropologists and archaeologists make of us and our artefacts? How will we look to them? And will they recognise something of themselves in us?
Photos taken courtesy of Tullie House Museum, Carlisle, Cumbria.