Rare Altar to Eastern God Emerges at Vindolanda

A rare find has emerged at the excavation of Vindolanda: a stone altar dedicated to an eastern god, Jupiter of Doliche. The third-century AD altar forms part of a ‘unique religious shrine’, which was uncovered near the north gate of the fort last month. Vindolanda is a former Roman fort and garrison, forming part of the heritage site of Hadrian’s Wall, running from Carlysle to Newcastle-upon-Tyne in the north of England.

The altar, weighing about 1.5 tons, was dedicated by a prefect of the Fourth Cohort of Gauls. The words are inscribed on the altar are:

Sulpicius Pu
dens praef
coh IIII Gall
V. S. L. M.

Which means: “To Jupiter Best and Greatest of Doliche, Sulpicius Pudens, prefect of the Fourth Cohort of Gauls, fulfilled his vow gladly and deservedly”.

The altar is decorated with a fine relief on one side showing Jupiter of Doliche standing on a bull holding a thunderbolt and an axe. Another side is engraved with a traditional jug and patera. The god Jupiter of Doliche was associated with the Roman god Jupiter, and was worshipped as a cult in what was, from 162 BC, the kingdom of Commagene in the area of modern southern Turkey. However, the god was often worshipped by Roman troops as well, who regarded the him as omnipotent.

Jupiter of Doliche actually has his origins as an ancient weather god, known as Hadad to the Semitic peoples of the Middle East and as Teshab to the Hittites. The original cult centre was on a hilltop close to the small town of Doliche (the modern Dlk in southern Turkey).

According to Andrew Birley, the director of excavations at Vindolanda, major altars like this are very rare finds. He says: To discover such a shrine inside the fort is highly unusual. The shrine also has evidence of animal sacrifice and possible religious feasting. It all adds to the excitement of the excavations and is a once in a lifetime experience for most excavators.”

Birley adds that: “An unusual feature of the new altar is that it was found inside the fort, in what may be a small shrine built close to the fort wall. Most altars and shrines were placed outside.”

The most important discovery at the site of Vindolanda to date has been the Vindolanda Tablets, the earliest preserved form of writing known in British history. They are a set of letters, documents and accounts written on wooden sheets, dating from around 90-120 AD.