Category Archives: Roman

A hidden oasis – Pozzo sacro Sa Testa, Sardinia

DSC_0373Many of Sardinia’s great sacred wells are found in romantic lost landscapes, dry arid fields or high in mountainous regions. However, one of the island’s most significant and evocative is found a few feet away from a busy main road, tucked behind an industrial estate and often overshadowed by the multiply planes which fly in and out of Olbia airport from across Europe. This well enclosed in a quiet oasis is that of Sa Testa, well sign posted from Olbia.

Discovery and artefacts

The site’s discovery was in the 1930s by shepherds seeking out water supplies. It was subsequently excavated by Franceso Soldati in 1938 and subsequently restored in 1969 by Ercole Contu. The work revealed bronze objects, such as dagger hilt, bracelet, ring as well as fragments of cup. These pieces placed the date of the site in line with the other sacred springs of the island, around Bronze Age end, 1200-900 BC.

However what is perhaps more amazing is that this was a site of continued ritual use. A fashioned juniper wood figurine was the most interesting. This was believed to present the archaic Greek God of Xoanon, a sort of phallic like large headed and little or in this case no armed deity, which dates from the 7th to the 6th centuries BC. Also found were thymiateria, Greek incense burners. Both finds clearly indicate that the site was of ritual use by a group unconnected ethnologically to the Nuragic people who built it. These was probably deposited by Phoenicians whose black painted bowls and pitchers were also found. However, the finding of jar and cup fragments from the Tuscan pottery production of Arezzo, emphasizing the influence of the Romans and their continued use if not for cult reasons than for domestic use.

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The ritual use by the constructors is suggested by the curious circular courtyard arrangement, 8 by 7 metres approximately around the well. This appears have been constructed so that some ceremonial activity could be undertaken with the circle with the ‘priests’ or secular members watching from around the edge from a bench. One view is that this site like that of Santa Christina was aligned astronomically with the moon’s minimum and maximum declination during its 18.6 year cycle.

The construction

Although not the largest of the wells, it is nevertheless substantially made. Built with cut granite and shale blocks it covers a length of around 18 metres and consists of a circular courtyard,, trapezoidal entrance, staircase and a tholos roof to the spring head. A second tholos has been lost but steps still ascend to it.

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Seventeen steps make their way to the clear deep water and to descend into them divorces you immediately from the hot air outside. The channel down through which these steps descend is made of shale and is narrow. What is also interesting in a paved over channel which goes from above the source and round into the source. Such an arrangement is usually stated to be collect run off but with a strong source even today in August why collect rain or condensation water? Was there another source above or was something else poured into the channel to collect in the well? Perhaps we shall never know what happened in this enclosure but despite the industrial and urbanisation around one can just feel the separation from modern times in the cool confines of its chamber.

The veneration of water in 12 objects…number 10 Cursing tablets

“Solinus to the goddess Sulis Minerva. I give to your divinity and majesty [my] bathing tunic and cloak. Do not allow sleep or health to him who has done me wrong, whether man or woman or whether slave or free unless he reveals himself and brings those goods to your temple.”

So translates a thin lead rectangular sheet one of 130 found in 1979-80 in the hot spring at Bath, deposited in the shrine of Sulis Minerva, the Goddess of the spring.  Theses so called curse tablets were written with a stylus in a cursive script and then rolled up with the writing innermost. Sometimes these sheets are nailed interestingly the word defixio being translated into fasten and curse! Sometimes the words are written backwards or lines written in alternating directions called asboustrophedon in Greek.

Interestingly, all bar one of the 130 concerned curses to do with stolen goods, so called ‘prayers for justice’. Thefts from Roman baths appeared to be a common problem and goods from gemstones, jewellery to clothing were stolen. Often the ‘victim’ was the perpetrator of a crime and the curse would range from sleep deprivation to death. For example:

“To the goddess Sulis Minerva. I ask your most sacred majesty that you take vengeance on those who have done [me] wrong, that you permit them neither sleep…”

Sometimes the curse would be more detailed in its instruction:

“Docilianus [son] of Brucerus to the most holy goddess Sulis. I curse him who has stolen my hooded cloak, whether man or woman, whether slave or free, that .. the goddess Sulis inflict death upon .. and not allow him sleep or children now and in the future, until he has brought my hooded cloak to the temple of her divinity.”

Another:

“ To Minerva the goddess Sulis I have given the thief who has stolen my hooded cloak, whether slave or free, whether man or woman.  He is not to buy back this gift unless with his own blood.”

This named the culprits:

“I have given to the goddess Sulis the six silver coins which I have lost. It is for the goddess to exact [them] from the names written below: Senicianus and Saturninus and Anniola,”

Another noted:

“Whether pagan or Christian, whether man or woman, whether boy or girl, whether slave or free whoever has stolen from me, Annianus [son of] Matutina (?), six silver coins from my purse, you, Lady Goddess, are to exact [them] from him. If through some deceit he has given me…and do not give thus to him but reckon as (?) the blood of him who has invoked his upon me.”

So curses appeared a little extreme considering:

“Docimedis has lost two gloves and asks that the thief responsible should lose their minds [sic] and eyes in the goddess’ temple.”

The inscriptions follow a general formula, suggesting perhaps that there was a commercial scribe more than probable as many people were illiterate around that time. The formula was as follows the stolen property was declared and transferred to the deity so it becomes their loss, the suspect and victim are named and then the later asks for punishment to induce the theft back. The language is interesting being in Latin lettering but in a Romano-British hybrid, some argue some may be Celtic. The tablets are on show in the excellent Roman Bath museum for all to wonder at this curious custom.

The veneration of water in 12 objects…..number eight The Gorgon carving

800px-Bath_bains_gorgoneWhen the foundations of the Grand Pump room were made in 1790, some strange pieces of a unique carving were discovered. Thought to represent a Gorgon’s head, it is said to have been sculptured by Gaulish artists around the first century AD and believed to hang over the entrance to the temple.

What is this image of?

One intretation is that the head, with its beard and thick moustache is surrounded by snakes . The Gorgon of course was killed by Perseus with the aid of Athene and significantly Minerva, part of the goddess complex of Sulis Minerva, is her Roman equivalent. This seems quite appropriate especially as the carving also appears to show wings which is commonly shown in Medusa images.

Another view

But wait a minute Medusa is female it is clearly a man!! I have another interpretation. I believe that this is a water god and the flowing serpents are not that but flowing water. I cannot clearly see any snake mouths. Certainly the face looks very Celtic, expectedly if it was carved in Gaul! So who is it? Well clearly it must be the original Celtic God of Sulis before its attachment to its female side – Minerva. Whatever, the real origin, we shall perhaps never know, but clearly the power of this image, reproduced in the shop many times is still evocative.