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XXI

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A Romano-British Votive Deposit from North Yorkshire

By SeptimusT

The votive deposit in situ

A Roman votive deposit consisting of two base metal coins and a bronze alloyed object inside a miniature lead bowl was found in 2018 by a metal detectorist in North Yorkshire, United Kingdom, in a field between the present-day village of Snape and Bedale. While all of the objects are quite crude, it is an incredibly unique assemblage to have been found with its original context. It came from a site which had reportedly produced isolated Roman denarii and a Celtic or Romano-British cauldron along with more recent material. Situated near the major Roman road designated RR8 and usually referred to as Dere Street, both Snape and Bedale were the sites of Roman villas (Scheduled Monuments NY1224 and 1426407, respectively), while the garrison town of Cataractonium (Catterick) was just to the north

 The votive deposit and its contents after excavation

The deposit can be dated to a terminus post quem of AD 383, based on one of the coins it contained, a bronze of Gratian identified as RIC Lugdunum 30a (1.68g, 16mm, dated to 9 August 378 Ė 25 August 383). The other coin is a Ďbarbarousí radiate imitating an issue of Gallienus, depicting Sol with a whip on the reverse and measuring 19mm, 1.18g. The model coin types date to circa AD 257-258 and were issued by the mints at Rome and Milan. The disparate age of the two coins is not unusual for hoards in isolated areas like northern Britannia.


The possible figural bronze and SWYOR-1AF5B1 from the Portable Antiquities Scheme


The unidentified bronze object is cast, flat on one side, with two incised depressions near the center, and may be crudely figural. It was at first identified as a snakeís head, but may instead be a representation genii cucullate of Celtic myth, mysterious deities who were associated with fertility, prosperity, or rebirth. Their appearance is similar to Telesphorus, a healing deity also of probable Celtic origin. Alternatively, it could be representative of a person in general, such as a sick or deceased person, or something else entirely. Crudely figural objects, lacking defined arms or legs, are also found in post-Roman contexts throughout Northwestern Europe. A roughly similar object might be documented as SWYOR-1AF5B1 in the Portable Antiquities Scheme database.

The base of the miniature lead bowl

The container itself is a miniature lead bowl set on a rimmed base. It measures 28mm in diameter and weighs 17.65g. Although no exact parallels seem to be listed in the Portable Antiquities Scheme database, either as isolated finds or as part of a deposit such as this one, similar miniature lead-alloy tableware is known from throughout the territory of Roman Empire. It is sometimes quite complex in design. It has been suggested that these miniature objects were associated with young girls, and that they were dedicated to Venus or the family lares when the girls came of age. They may have served as protective amulets in the same way that phallic fascini did for boys. Others have interpreted them as toys without specific votive function, but that clearly does not seem to be the case here. Similar objects are not noted to have been used as containers for ritual deposits. 

Itís hard to say more about this object without being able to examine its context and look for other associated finds, if there are any. All that is certain is that this is a fascinating example of late Roman religious practices in Britain, and due to its crude nature it was probably associated with a lower status individual. It is hoped that similar objects will come to light in the future, offering more insight into these practices; currently, the closest parallel that could be found is LVPL-15E376, dating from almost 200 years earlier. It seems likely that, as noted in that entry, other votive containers of the same type as the bowl may be known but have been misidentified due to a lack of context. For now, I hope that sharing it here will allow it to be studied and enjoyed by others in perpetuity. 

Sources: Miniature Votive Offerings in the north-west Provinces of the Roman Empire, by Philip Kiernan 

"Aspects of Votive Offering in South-East Britain", by Jean Bagnall-Smith, in Ritual Landscapes of Roman South-East Britain