The Ryedale Ritual Bronzes. A unique assemblage of Roman ritual artefacts from Yorkshire.
In May 2020, approximately 20 miles north of York, the Roman city of Eboracum, two friends Mark Didlick and James Spark unearthed an amazing assemblage of Roman bronze-work. Consisting of a large bust, a horse and rider figurine, a zoomorphic knife handle and a pendulum, this assemblage almost certainly represents a set of ritual equipment, buried as one deposit in the closing decades of the second century AD either at, or very close to, a rural temple or shrine site.
The 130mm high bronze bust, with its flamboyant hair and curly, forked beard appears to represent Marcus Aurelius. Emperor AD 161-180, philosopher and author, his reign followed those of Nerva, Trajan, Hadrian and his adoptive father, Antoninus Pius. He earned his place in Roman hearts as the last of the ‘Five Good Emperors’ whose consecutive rules oversaw a period of relative peace and prosperity in Rome. The bust is hollow, cast using the lost wax method and very finely modelled. Although the portrait is somewhat stylised, with large almond-shaped eyes, close similarities can be seen with some other depictions of the Emperor, notably the bronze equestrian statue of Aurelius in the Piazza del Campidoglio, Rome, and the full-length figure in the Ny Carlsberg Glyptotek, Copenhagen. The back of the head has a hinged plate which opens like a trap door to reveal the interior, possibly designed as such to allow the placement of a flaming lamp inside to bring life to the eyes.
A similar head was found at Brackley, Northamptonshire in the 1970’s and now features on the homepage of the Portable Antiquities Scheme website. The head is hollow-cast and has cobalt blue glass inlaid into the eyes. The PAS record BERK-E24C84 states:
‘The small number of heads or busts cast in bronze and found in Britain share characteristics such as slanting eyes and the textured patterning of the hair identifies them as the products of a provincial Romano-British workshop. The Brackley head can be dated to the mid-late second century AD by its resemblance to images of Antonine emperors, especially Marcus Aurelius. It may perhaps be inappropriate to suggest that the head from Brackley represents the local rendering of an imperial portrait, but a profile image on a coin portrait of Marcus Aurelius might have been its inspirations.’
Around 20 bronze heads/busts are known from Roman Britain, depicting various gods and emperors and they are thought to be mounts from the tops of sceptres. These sceptres would have been carried by priests and used for divination and the performance of rituals.
A cast bronze figurine of a rider on horseback, probably representing the God Mars. The horse and rider are well modelled, the horse harness with attached phalerae and reins clearly visible, though the latter are broken. Mars, wearing a helmet, short-sleeved tunic and pleated skirt, belted at the waist, sits astride the horse with his right arm raised to hold a spear. The left arm is held in front, bent at the elbow and the simple form of the forearm indicates it would have been held behind a shield, hidden from view. No traces of a shield were found in the hoard and it is possible that this was made from organic material. The horse has its right foreleg raised and the other legs have small pegs on the base of the hooves, indicating that the figurine would have been fixed into a plinth. It is often the case with votive deposits that figurines are interred without their bases or sometimes a pedestal is included with no accompanying figurine. 86.8mm high. 222g.
A solid bronze knife handle in the form of a horse protome (the foreparts of a horse). The horse is well modelled with its front legs outstretched and head forward, as though leaping. PAS suggest that ‘The presence of the horse protome... might also be explained through its secondary use as a substitute votive for animal sacrifice.’ The symbolism may not end there, this may have been a knife using in rituals of animal sacrifice or divination through the examination of animal entrails.
A large bronze conical plumb bob or pendulum measuring 72mm long, 40mm diameter and weighing 282g. The top is decorated with concentric circles and at the centre is a mushroom-shaped projection, which is pierced both vertically and horizontally for attachment to a line. Such items were an important tool for surveyors and architects and it has been suggested that this could be a votive offering relating to a new building project or the surveying of the landscape, More likely, however, is that the pendulum was used for the purposes of divination and predicting the future.
The find was taken to York museum where it was recorded with the Portable Antiquities Scheme, reference number: YORYM-870B0E. Under current legislation this find did not fulfil the criteria to qualify as ‘Treasure’ so the hoard was returned to the finders. https://finds.org.uk/database/artefacts/record/id/1013510
Other examples of similar ritual deposits from Roman Britain include.
The Felmingham Hall Hoard: This hoard from Norfolk was discovered in 1844 and consisted of a large ceramic cauldron containing 19 bronze items. The contents included a sceptre heads depicting Jupiter and Minerva along with other figures of gods and animals, along with a ritual rattle used for divination purpose. This hoard has been interpreted as a symbolic ‘end of life’ votive deposit possibly signifying the closure of the shrine to which they belonged. A coin of Valerian inside the cauldron dates the hoard to the mid third century AD.
Willingham Fen Hoard: At Willingham Fen in 1857, another hoard of priestly regalia was found. This included horse and rider figurines, five broken sceptres, including handles and terminals, and a large bronze sceptre head depicting the emperor Antoninus Pius. These items were contained within a wooden box. It was suggested that the head of Antoninus was crafted after the Emperor was deified, justifying his presence atop a sceptre in a position usually reserved for the gods. https://www.jstor.org/stable/297703?seq=1
The Ryedale bronzes offer a tantalising insight into the religious practices of Roman Britain in the 2nd century. The items themselves were obviously held in high esteem and from other examples of ritual hoards we can see that such deposits were not infrequent occurrences. We can theorise that these objects were the property of one priest, his tools of communication with the Gods, and were no longer needed in the mortal realm once the priest passed on. In his book Meditations Marcus Aurelius wrote ‘What we do now echoes in eternity.’ Famously paraphrased by General Maximus in the opening scenes of Gladiator, this still holds true today as the events around a rural shrine in Ryedale echo forward into the 21st century.
(Text reproduced with from The Searcher magazine June 2021 issue pp.20-23).
For further information see Esposito (2019) Performing the Sacra: Priestly Roles and Their Organisation in Roman Britain.
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