Roman Empire

Pre-Christian Altars from Roman Empire-era Britain

Maryport in north-west England, just to the south of Hadrian’s wall, turned up the biggest collection of pre-Christian altars in the country—seventeen, all dedicated to Jupiter and with a new one dedicated each year by the army platoon commander during his stationing at the fort overlooking the Solway Firth.

The altars are made of stone, inscribed with texts, and topped by small plinths shaped as a bowl, which would have held blood (ox was considered appropriate to Jupiter), oil or wine. Images show the altars, the contours of the ruins of the fort—now overtaken by grazing sheep, a statue of a household god from a domestic shrine, and artists’ impressions of life in place in Roman times, with soldiers bartering at market, wrestling, bathing and in funerary procession.

Apart from being of interest in their own right, these ancient altars, which date from the late first and early second century CE—and so which are contemporaneous with the writing of the New Testament—suggest what was and was not adopted and transformed by Christian communities as, within a century or so, they came sometimes to speak of tables—larger, flat and centred on a shared meal—as altars.

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Photos: Stephen Burns / June 2018