Uncovering the Past

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As some Pagans and Heathens reconstruct or revive ancient religions they often rely on the work of historians, primary texts, anthropologists and archaeologists. For this reason, when something new pops up that challenges long held academic ideas on cultural or religious practice, we pay attention. Here are some recaps of finds making waves in archaeological circles.

Paved roads in Latium may have facilitated pilgrimages

Le FERRIERE, Italy – Young Rome had to compete for power with other cities in central Italy (Latium). Archaeologists have been excavating one such city, Satricum. Excavations at Satricum revealed the earliest known inscription in Latin, the Lapis Satricanus.”


Stone slab with inscription from the temple of Mother Matuta in Satricum, credit Szilas

Like other cities in Latium, Satricum lay on the trade routes between the Greek colonies of southern Italy and the Etruscan complex of northern Italy. Both Etruscan and Greek cultures influenced the cities of Latium.

Satricum was best known for its sanctuary of Mater Matuta, a goddess of birth. The sanctuary of Mater Matuta at Satricum began as a hut, but was rebuilt on several occasions. Underneath this temple complex, archaeologists have found a large votive deposit.


Statue of Mater Matuta, Credit Sailko


The Romans equated Mater Matuta with Aurora as well as goddess Eos from the Greek pantheon. This goddess also became associated with sea harbors and ports. The Romans built a temple to Mater Matuta in Rome with her festival on June 11.

The City of Satricum, began to pave its roads sometime between 650 to 600 B.C.E. Archaeological evidence suggests that its motivation was to make travel to the Mater Matuta Temple easier. The earliest paved roads found in Roman territory date to 174 B.C.E. Satricum may have taught Rome how to pave its roads. Unlike Roman roads, however, Satricum’s roads facilitated pilgrimages to the shrine of a goddess.

Evidence of Wide Trade Network in the Levant as early as 1600 B.C.E.

MEGIDDO, Israel – Tombs discovered in the Canaanite city of Megiddo show evidence of long distance trace in spices and other luxury goods as early as 1600 B.C.E. Megiddo dominates the route from Egypt to Mesopotamia, the Via Maris.

One tomb contained three bodies, a middle aged man, a woman in her thirties, and a child between 8 and 10. The male skeleton had a gold necklace and diadem. The tomb is located next to the ruins of the Royal Palace of Megiddo. The grave goods included jars from Egypt and ceramic vessels from Cyprus. The grave goods and location indicate the high status and wealth of its occupants.

Chemical tests of the jars found residues of vanilla. While vanilla grows throughout Afro-Eurasia, no prior evidence had existed for vanilla use in Afro-Eurasia before contact with the Americas. The chemical signatures of these residues match those of Kenyan and Indian vanilla. Presence of this vanilla residue would require long distance trade.

Other evidence for early long distance trade includes the following. In 1213 B.C.E, the mummifiers of Ramasses II stuffed Sri Lankan peppercorns into his nose. Around 1000 B.C.E, Sri Lankan cinnamon is also found in the Levant and Mesopotamia.

If goods were traded, myths, rituals, and gods could also have been exchanged. A wide network of trade and cultural exchange challenges notions of cultures of the ancient world as relatively isolated until large empires emerged.

Evidence for large settlement at Tintagel, an Arthurian site

TINTAGEL, Cornwall, UK – Excavations at Tintagel challenge the notion of post-Roman, pre-Saxon Britain as the “Dark Ages.” After the Roman Legions left in 410 C.E., large Roman urban centers disappeared. Small rival kingdoms replaced central authority. One such kingdom, Dumnonia, ruled over southwest Britain, including Cornwall (“Kernow” in the Cornish language). Tintagel may have been an occasional royal residence for the Kings of Dumnonia. Archaeologists have uncovered evidence in Tintagel of international trade and a relatively dense population. In Arthurian lore, Arthur Pendragon (King Arthur) was conceived in Tintagel.


The Lady of the Lake presenting Excalibur to Arthur, credit Howard Pyle

Archaeologists have excavated only about 10 percent of Tintagel Island. They currently estimate that the site has 100 post-Roman, pre-Saxon buildings. If these estimates are correct, Tintagel may have had the highest population density on the island of Britain.

Excavations reveal a five foot deep layer of cultural artifacts. Archaeologists have found more post-Roman pottery in Tintagel than in all the rest of the island of Britain. They have found luxury goods such as olive oil from Iberia, North Africa, and Anatolia. Excavators have also found shards of glass from Iberia and Gaul. Tintagel may have been one node in a viable trade network with the remains of the Roman world.

By the eighth or ninth century, Tintagel had begun to decline. The world was no longer post-Roman.

This evidence challenges how people think about the “Dark Ages” in the island of Britain. It, however, is consistent with the quasi-Pagan and Romanized Celtic world of Arthurian lore.

Headhunters of Gaul

Le CAILAR, France – In the Second Branch of the Mabinogi, Celtic warriors spoke on several occasions with the severed head of Bran the Blessed. Greek and Roman texts of the 299 to 200 B.C.E. report that warriors of Gaul severed the heads of only their most powerful and important enemies. These warriors then “embalmed” the heads for display. One ancient sculpture shows a Gaulish warrior’s horse, with a severed head hanging from the horse’s neck.

Recent archaeological evidence from southern Gaul (France) confirms these reports. In Le Cailar, France, archaeologists found decapitated skulls, dating from 299 to 200 B.C.E. These skulls had conifer resin on them. This resin could have prevented decay and decomposition.