Ritual sites and cult practices

Ritual sites in the La Tene Iron Age take a variety of forms, and it is not until the Gallo-Roman period that a regular plan of temple buildings or sacred enclosure can be recognized. Not surprisingly the closest we have come to formalized ritual structures are the remains from the Celto-Ligurian sanctuaries of Mediterranean Gaul, with skull-niched pillars and sculpted images. Elsewhere in the absence of recognizable structural remains, altars or dedications to deities, it is not easy to infer a ritual purpose, though the nature of deposits like those from La Tene itself or Snettisham in Norfolk may be so exceptional and so unlike normal domestic remains that a votive explanation may seem probable. Abnormal quantities of material, especially if they are prestige items or have been treated abnormally, might reasonably be explained as votive deposits, although current fashion perhaps has over-emphasized ritual as an explanation of hoards in prehistory (Bradley, 1998). It is the absence of significant material evidence of cult offerings that makes interpretation difficult of the Viereckschanzen (lit. 'four-cornered' or quadrangular enclosures) of Central and Western Europe, though the wooden stag carvings found in the shaft at Fellbach-Schmiden, Baden-W├╝rttemberg (Planck, 1982), might be consistent with ritual use. Classical sources might lead to an expectation that natural locations like springs or sacred groves attracted veneration, and the ex voto carvings from the source of the Seine or from Chamalieres near Clermont-Ferrand might be cited as endorsement.

Undoubtedly the most compelling of ritual sites recognized archaeologically are the Gaulish sites such as Gournay-sur-Aronde and Ribemont-sur-Ancre (Brunaux, 1988). Gournay (Brunaux et al., 1985; Brunaux and Rapin, 1994; Lejars, 1994) is particularly remarkable, since its origins clearly date from the fourth century bc, even though its early layout may have been obscured by later structural phases. The sacred enclosure was defined by a quadrangular ditch, within which were found more than two thousand weapons, apparently ritually broken, and large quantities of animal bones, deposits that evidently accumulated during the site's use. Among the seven hundred scabbards, various different styles of ornament were represented, suggesting a wide range of sources of production. A central setting of pits likewise contained cattle remains from what were interpreted as ritual sacrifices. By the first century bc this focal area had become a small wooden temple of square plan, itself succeeded towards the end of the century by a stone-founded shrine. Eventually, this exact location became the site in the fourth century ad of a Gallo-Roman temple, further endorsing, if endorsement were required, the ritual character of the site. Ribemont was a sanctuary of the Gallo-Roman period, part of an extensive complex of buildings including theatre and baths. Particularly remarkable was an ossuary of human bones, carefully constructed around three sides of a central posthole containing cremated human remains. It stood within a ditched enclosure along the sides of which had been deposited dismembered human remains, the product either of human sacrifice on a massive scale or of a hitherto undocumented funerary cult.

Gallo-Roman temple sites, like their counterparts in Britain, may well have been sited in relation to earlier pre-Roman sanctuaries, and by implication may have perpetuated some element of pre-Roman Celtic ritual practice. The recent discovery at Naves, in Correze, therefore, of a hoard of bronze carnyxes on the site of a Gallo-Roman shrine is of particular interest, since they closely replicate the form represented both at Deskford in northern Scotland and on one of the inner panels of the Gundestrup cauldron, in which the horn mouth is in the head of an animal, here apparently including snake as well as boar imagery.

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