Carving of Roman god unearthed from ancient garbage dump

Archaeologists in the UK have a bit of a mystery on their hands, after discovering an 1,800 year old carving of a head, buried in the garbage dump of an ancient Roman fort.

The tiny sandstone head — small enough to hold in one hand — was unearthed by a first-year archaeology student at Durham University named Alex Kirton, much to his excitement, while he was digging at the site of Binchester Roman Fort.

"As an archaeology student this is one of the best things and most exciting things that could have happened," Kirton said, according to a University news release. "It was an incredible thing to find in a lump of soil in the middle of nowhere — I've never found anything remotely exciting as this."

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Binchester Roman Fort is thought to have been established in the 1st century AD, as a guard post along a major road headed from York to where Hadrian's Wall was built, about 30 kms to the north.

"We found the Binchester head close to where a small Roman altar was found two years ago," said Dr David Petts, who lectures about the archaeology of northern England at Durham University, according to the news release.

"We think it may have been associated with a small shrine in the bath house and dumped after the building fell out of use, probably in the 4th century AD," he added. "It is probably the head of a Roman god — we can’t be sure of his name, but it does have similarities to the head of Antenociticus found at Benwell in the 19th century."

The head found at Benwell actually had the name Antenociticus carved into it, making it easier to identify, but before its discovery, the name of this deity was unknown. It's thought that it was a local god that the Romans there adopted the worship of, as he may have been a warrior god (the Romans are known for adopting the local worship of regions they conquered).

Andrew Parkin, from the Great North Museum (where the Benwell head is on display), recently talked about Antenociticus in a documentary:

"Antenociticus is one of a number of gods known only from the northern frontier, a region which seems to have had a number of its own deities," said Petts, referring to the northern frontier of the Roman Empire, which included England up to Hadrian's Wall and then Antonine Wall.

"It's also an excellent insight into the life and beliefs of the civilians living close to the Roman fort," he added. "The style is a combination of classical Roman art and more regional Romano-British traditions. It shows the population of the settlement taking classical artistic traditions and making them their own."

It's still not clear if this newly-discovered carving actually is of Antenociticus, though. As Petts mentioned, there were a number of gods worshiped in the area, and it could be one that was local only to the Binchester area. The researchers even noted that the carving has some aspects that appear African.

"This is something we need to consider deeply," said Petts. "If it is an image of an African, it could be extremely important, although this identification is not certain."

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It's been said that any culture in the far future will be able to tell a lot about our present-day culture by digging through our garbage dumps, not only to find preserved examples of the things we produced, but also to see the things we decided to throw away. This certainly holds true for the ancient cultures archaeologists investigate today, and this carving is a perfect example, as it may provide insights into the fall of the Roman Empire.

(Images courtesy: Petts/Duraham University, Wikimedia Commons)

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