Image of ‘Geordie’ god found at Binchester Roman fort

An archaeological dig at Binchester Roman fort has unearthed a carved stone head of the Celtic god Antenociticus

Dr. David Mason, with the head off a Roman Statue at Binchester Roman Fort, near Bishop Auckland
Dr. David Mason, with the head off a Roman Statue at Binchester Roman Fort, near Bishop Auckland

What may be only the second image ever found of a Roman “Geordie” god has been unearthed in the North East.

Until now, the Great North Museum in Newcastle has held the only carved stone head of the Celtic god Antenociticus.

It was discovered in 1862 in a temple at Benwell Roman fort in Newcastle.

But now a dig at Binchester Roman fort, near Bishop Auckland in County Durham, has produced a second stone head, similar in features to the Benwell carving.

In the Benwell temple, built in about AD 178-80 and the remains of which are on show in Broomridge Avenue, there was also an altar dedicated to Antenociticus by a Roman cavalry leader in thanks for his promotion.

Another two altars to the god were dedicated by a centurion of the Twentieth Legion and the First Cohort of Vangiones, who came from the Rhineland.

Antenociticus is recorded nowhere else in the Roman Empire.

 

The find at Binchester was made by Durham University archaeology student Alex Kirton in buried late-Roman rubbish within what was probably a bath house.

The sandstone head, dating from the Second or Third Century, has been likened to Antenociticus, thought to have been worshipped as a source of inspiration and intercession.

Dr David Petts, lecturer in Archaeology at Durham University, said: “We found the Binchester head close to where a small Roman altar was found two years ago.

“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 Fourth Century.

“We are continuing to explore the building from which it came to help us improve our understanding of late Roman life at Binchester and the Roman Empire’s northern frontier.

“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.

“It's also an excellent insight into the life and beliefs of the civilians living close to the fort.

“It shows the population of the settlement taking classical artistic traditions and making them their own.”

Dr David Mason, principal archaeologist with the site’s owner, Durham County Council, said: “The head is a welcome addition to the collection from Binchester.

“Previous religious dedications from the site feature deities from the classical pantheon of gods and goddesses, such as the supreme god Jupiter and those associated with healing and good health such as Aesculapius, Salus and Hygeia.

“This one, however, appears to represent a local Romano-Celtic god and probably representing the conflation of a classical deity with its local equivalent.

“The similarity with the head of Antenociticus is notable, but this could be a deity local to Binchester.”

The find was made as part of a five-year project at Binchester Roman Fort, which is shedding new light on the twilight years of the Roman Empire.

The Binchester dig is a joint project between Durham University’s Department of Archaeology, Durham County Council, Stanford University’s Archaeology Centre and the Architectural and Archaeological Society of Durham and Northumberland.

Visitors to the Binchester Roman Festival on July 13-14 will be able to see the head, along with other objects found during the current excavations.

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