It was a ploughman’s chance discovery that led to one the greatest Roman finds of the Victorian age – described by John Collingwood Bruce, the 19th-century historian of Hadrian’s Wall, as a ‘sudden acquisition of treasure’ such as had never before been seen in the region.
In 1870, a Cumbrian land-owner by the name of Humphrey Senhouse was seeking to improve the productivity of a field some 300m north-east of the Roman fort at Maryport, just to the south of Hadrian’s Wall, so he ordered his men to plough it more deeply than they had ever done before.
When the men set to work, however, they found that their ploughshare kept hitting large ‘stones’ – which upon further investigation turned out to be an extraordinary haul of 17 freestanding Roman altars, carved from blocks of local St Bees sandstone, whose inscriptions identified them as dedications to Iuppiter Optimus Maximus – ‘Jupiter best and greatest’, the most exalted god in the Roman pantheon.
Subsequent excavation at the site revealed that the altars had been buried in a series of gigantic pits – and as we learn this week on The Past, debate has raged ever since about what these beautiful but mysterious objects (many of which are now on show at the site’s Senhouse Roman Museum) were for, where they originally stood, and why they had been committed to the ground in such a manner.
In the latest issue of Current Archaeology magazine, and on the new edition of our brilliant PastCast podcast, archaeologists Ian Haynes and Tony Wilmott bring us up to date with the recent, detailed reinvestigation of the remains of two temples first discovered near the site more than 150 years ago. Might they hold the key to understanding the original purpose of the altars? And what other clues can they offer about Roman religious activity and the diverse range of gods worshipped by Maryport’s inhabitants?
Elsewhere this week on The Past, we have also been delving into the archives in search of more new discoveries near Hadrian’s Wall: we returned to Maryport to learn more about the site’s role in Roman cultic and commercial activity; we checked in at Birdoswald to catch up on the latest findings from this most-excavated of forts; and we looked along the Wall for evidence that plague in the 2nd and 3rd centuries might have caused so many extramural settlements to be abandoned.
And finally: if all that simply whets your appetite, don’t forget to have a go at our latest themed Quiz, which this week is also focused on Roman Britain. Good luck, and we hope you enjoy The Past!
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