An Egyptian Goddess Abroad

Many of you may not know that for about fifty years a goddess used to travel round the schools of Derbyshire. This particular goddess is a small bronze statue from Egypt, and who forms part of the Derbyshire School Loans service – she used to be sent out as a teaching resource to schools and has now been transferred to the permanent collections at Buxton Museum and Art Gallery. She is currently on display along with some other goddesses from around the world in the Wonders of the Peak Gallery. Sadly we are closed at the moment because of the Coronavirus outbreak, but once we are open please come and support us, and take a look at this ancient and powerful lady.

The goddess Isis in Buxton

The statue that we have depicts the goddess seated on a throne and holding her infant son, Horus, on her lap. She dates to the Late Period of Egyptian history (664 – 332 BC); this was a period which saw the reunification of Egypt after foreign rule, and several wars for independence. Sadly this independence didn’t last long as a hundred years later the Persians invaded; it was only until Alexander the Great liberated the country that Egypt once again went through a Golden Age, this time under the rule of the Greek Ptolemaic kings.

Isis is an ancient goddess, and she played a central role to the lives of the Egyptians, and later across the Roman Empire, as a loving, protective mother. She first appears in the Pyramid Texts, the oldest known corpus of ancient Egyptian religious texts dating to the Old Kingdom (2400 BC). It is here that the tales surrounding her were first formulated. The story was adapted over time but briefly it consists of the following.

Isis and her brother Osiris ruled the earth, being given the power to do so by their grandfather Ra, the sun-god. They introduced farming and crops to Egypt and taught the people the ways of civilisation and laws. Their brother Seth however, was jealous and in a plot murdered Osiris, cutting his body into pieces and scattering it across Egypt. Isis and her sister, Nepthys, gathered up the remains and mummified them. Isis then transformed herself into a bird, and through the action of her wings blew life into the dead god. Osiris was rejuvenated and Isis coupled with him to produce their heir, the god Horus. Osiris would then go to the realm of the dead, where he would be the ruler of the underworld.

Isis hid in the delta marshes with her child and protected him with great magic to keep him away from his jealous uncle. When Horus was old enough he challenged his uncle to a battle for the throne of Egypt, and after a lengthy fight he defeated Seth to become the next divine ruler of Egypt.

At its core the story is one of order and truth overcoming the powers of chaos, but also the protective power of the goddess toward her husband and son, as well as the whole of humanity.

Isis was appealed to for healing, the safe delivery of children, as the overseer of divine order, the protector of the throne, as well as being considered powerful in magic and the guardian of the dead, among many others roles.

During the time of the Greek Ptolemaic rule of Egypt her worship underwent a change with it becoming a Mystery religion; this is most likely due to the influence of the Mysteries of Eleusis near Athens, which was one of the most ancient and popular of the Mystery Cults; others included the Great Mother Cybele, Dionysus, the Orphic Mysteries, and later Mithras who was a favourite of the Roman soldiers. Central to these cults was the belief in salvation and life after death, the revealing of sacred secrets and initiation ceremonies, and a religious society who supported their members.

As Romans began to trade with Egypt they came into contact with the goddess and her worship began to appeal to them. Temples were built and the Mysteries developed further. Temples were set up across the Empire with the largest being in Rome at the Camps Martius near the Pantheon. The best preserved temple is that at Pompeii which preserves the beautiful wall paintings narrating the legends of the goddess.

There is evidence for the worship of the goddess in Roman Britain too; a flagon dating to the 2nd century AD, and destined for a tavern in London reads ‘Londini ad fanum Isidis’, meaning ‘London, next to the temple of Isis’. York also had a large temple complex dedicated to the goddess and her consort Osiris-Serapis, and this temple seems to have been built for use by the Emperor Septimius Severus, a well-known devotee of the goddess who visited Britain and was based at York from 208 to 211 AD.

A novel was also written about the goddess in the 2nd century AD, known as The Metamorphosis of Lucius Apuleius, or more commonly ‘The Golden Ass’. This is a tale of witchcraft and magic where the main character is turned into a donkey by a witch. After many adventures Lucius wakes up to a vision of the goddess rising from the sea. She promises him that he will be turned back to human shape by seeking out her priest, and that after he must become initiated into the cult where he will receive salvation and the promise of a blessed afterlife.

It was not until the 6th century AD that the worship of Isis finally ended when the Christian Emperor Justinian ordered the closing of her most holy shrine on the Island of Philae in Egypt.

When Buxton Museum and Art Gallery reopens in the near future the goddess would love for you to come and see her.

The Strange Case of the Wandering Spoon

I am working on a project funded by the Esmée Fairbairn Foundation that is overseeing the re-homing of the objects from the School library Loans Service in Derby. This collection consists of paintings, studio pottery, archaeological, ethnographic and social history items. Sadly, Buxton Museum and Art Gallery can only keep a small percentage of this wonderful and eclectic mix of items. Through detective work that involves sifting through old records, myself and my colleague have been gathering information on where the items came from over the fifty years the service was collecting. We are contacting museums and community groups in the areas that these objects originate from to see if they would like the items so that they can have a new lease of life.

The Roman spoon at Buxton museum and Art Gallery

One of these items is a Roman silver spoon, elegant in its shape and practical in its form; the handle ends in a point which enabled the wealthy Roman who owned it to pick out oysters from their shells – Britain was famed in the Roman period for its oysters ! The handle joins the bowl of the spoon with an arched shape that gives this type of spoon its name – swan necked. Through my investigations I discovered that the spoon originated from Canterbury and was purchased from an antiques dealer in Keighley in 1966. I contacted Canterbury Museum who emailed me back to say that they were very excited by the news as it appeared to have originally belonged to a hoard of precious items buried in the city as the Roman Empire collapsed.

The hoard was discovered during road works in the Longmarket area of the city in 1962. Declared treasure trove, it was bought by the city council to be displayed at the Roman Museum which had been established the year before. However five objects appeared on the London antiquities market in 1982 that were originally part of the treasure but had not been declared at the time of its discovery. They were again declared as treasure trove and purchased a year later. It would seem as though the spoon in our collection had also not been declared at the time of the discovery and had been sold to the antiques dealer in Keighley shortly after.

The Canterbury Hoard © Canterbury Museum

The treasure is mostly composed of small silver objects and jewellery. Many of the artefacts have Christian iconography on them. The silver objects include thirteen spoons (one engraved with a sea stag, another with the words in Latin ‘viribonum’-‘I belong to a good man’), a toothpick, a rough bar and three ingots which each weigh one Roman pound. The jewellery include a gold finger ring with an inset green glass stone, a gold necklace clasp and a silver pin. One of the coins in the treasure was minted at Milan in the time of Emperor Honorius which means the hoard must have been buried sometime after 402 AD.

Silver spoons from the Canterbury Hoard with Christian and Pagan symbols © Canterbury Museum

The treasure was buried at a time when the Roman Empire was collapsing, the economy was nose diving and plague was sweeping across Europe, weakening the infrastructure of the once greatest Empire on earth. Britain at this time was also subject to raids by Germanic tribes from Northern Europe. In response to the anarchy many people buried their valuables with a view to coming back in safer times to retrieve them; for whatever reason many people never returned. Shortly after the treasure at Canterbury was buried the Romans left Britain to fend for itself and the Anglo-Saxons arrived, filling the power vacuum and bringing with them a new language, art form and society that would form the foundations of modern day England. The spoon from Buxton is now on display at Canterbury Roman Museum along with the rest of the hoard where it forms part of the story of the ancient Roman city of Durovernum Cantiacorum.

Picture credits: Canterbury Museums and Galleries

Sacred Waters and Altars

Bret Gaunt sheds more light on some of the Roman artefacts at Buxton Museum:

With the arrival of the Romans in the 1st century a new culture was introduced to the tribal lands of the Corieltauvi, the native, Iron Age people of the Peak District. Although the region remained largely agricultural, the Romans exploited the rich lead deposits and established forts, such as Melandra and Brough, to control both the commodities and the local people. The Romans also built the town of Buxton, centred on the sacred thermal spring.

One of the ways in which the Romans integrated into the local cultures that became part of the Empire, was by the adoption of local gods into the pantheon of Rome. The Iron Age Celts largely worshipped at open air sites, most often associated with water, such as lakes, bogs, rivers and sacred springs. One of the most famous watery sites in the Peak District is the thermal spring at Buxton, then known as Aquae Arnemetiae, meaning ‘the Waters of the goddess Arnemetia’.

Buxton is one of only two places in Roman Britain known to have the prefix ‘Aquae’, the other being Bath in Somerset, known to the Romans as Aquae Sulis (the Waters of the goddess Sulis). Like its counterpart in the South, Roman Buxton consisted of a series of Bath houses, now under the Crescent, close to the sacred springs. On the Slopes, overlooking the site of the baths and springs, was a temple dedicated to the goddess Arnemetia; excavations in the late 18th century revealed that the temple was of typical Classical design with a rectangular podium supporting a shrine room with portico of columns to the front. Such temples are a rarity in Roman Britain with only five such examples being known; temples in Roman Britain more often take the form known as Romano-Celtic, being a tower type structure with colonnaded ambulatory around all four sides.

The name of the goddess Arnemetia contains the Celtic word ‘nemeton’, meaning ‘sacred grove’; so her name is interpreted as being ’she who dwells over against the sacred grove’. The springs at Buxton must have held special powers for the local people as there are six grouped closely together in the valley floor and which provide both hot and cold water. During the Roman period offerings of jewellery and coins were made at one of the springs located between The Old Hall Hotel and the Crescent; these finds are now in the Wonders of the Peak gallery at Buxton Museum and Art Gallery.

brough altar
Altar to Arnomecta from Brough

Other evidence for the goddess Arnemetia comes in the form of an altar from the fort of Navio, close to the village of Brough, and now in the Wonders of the Peak gallery. Here the goddess is given the name Arnomecta. The altar was found in the underground strong-room of the headquarters building and consists of the typical block shape with a pair of bolsters to the top and inscription to the front. The inscription, which is contained within a wreath, reads ‘Deae Arnomecte Ael(ius) Motio V(otum S(olvit) L(aetus) L(ibens) M(erito), meaning ‘To the goddess Arnomecta, Aelius Motio gladly, willingly, and deservedly fulfilled his vow’.

altar top
Imperial altar top from Melandra

Altars were central to the cults of most gods and was the focus for sacrifices and offerings to the particular deity. At temple sites the altar was generally outside, and opposite the main door, though at military shrines in forts and Romano-Celtic temples the altars were often placed inside and against the walls. The large outdoor altars were for the public ceremonies associated with the deity, which generally involved the sacrifice of animals accompanied by prayers for the well-being of the Emperor and the community. The smaller altars would have been more suitable for the offering of food, incense and for wine to be poured over the top. It was not unusual for an altar to be erected or promised to a god in exchange for a safe journey or other favour, thus the phrase ‘gladly, willingly and deservedly fulfilled his vow’ on the Navio altar shows that whatever Aelius Motio asked for, the gods provided!

Other altars in Buxton Museum and Art Gallery include the top to a large Imperial altar from Melandra Roman fort near Glossop, a badly weathered altar from Hope village, as well as a small altar dedicated to Mars, god of war, from Brough. There must have been numerous altars set up at the healing shrine of Arnemetia in Buxton, including a large altar outside the temple for the focus of worship, but to date none have been found. Many of the altars were dedicated by people from across the Empire; an altar at Haddon Hall, near Bakewell, is dedicated to the Roman god of war Mars, and the Celtic goddess of sacred intoxication, Braciaca, by a high ranking officer from Numidia in North Africa, revealing the diverse cultures that existed in Roman Derbyshire.


A Remarkable Discovery

You may have already seen in the news that Buxton Museum now has the Reynard’s Kitchen Cave Coin Hoard on display so there has never been a better time to pay us a visit.

In case you’ve missed all the excitement, the initial discovery of four coins was made by a member of the public, which led the National Trust to carry out a full excavation of the cave in Dovedale, a tourist hotspot on the border of Derbyshire and Staffordshire. In total, twenty six coins, including three Roman coins which pre-date the invasion of Britain in AD 43, were unearthed.

Reynard's Kitchen Cave, Dovedale. Collection of Buxton Museum and Art Gallery.
Reynard’s Kitchen Cave, Dovedale. Collection of Buxton Museum and Art Gallery.

The hoard consists of both Late Iron Age and Republican Roman coins, the first time coins of these two origins are thought to have been found buried together in a cave in Britain. The discovery is significant. Not only is it unusual to find Late Iron Age gold coins, but to unearth them actually within a cave setting adds to the mystery surrounding them.

Twenty of the coins are Late Iron Age and attributed to the Corieltavi tribe. These people lived further east of Dovedale in the modern Midlands. They were probably farmers, and came together for mutual benefit. Their tribal centres are thought to be Sleaford and Lincoln, and later in Roman times, Leicester.

The excavation was led by University of Leicester Archaeology Service and undertaken by Operation Nightingale which provides recuperation for field archaeology to for service personnel injured in recent conflicts. The coins were then sent to be studied at the British Museum before being  cleaned by conservators at the Institute of Archaeology at University College, London.


Late Iron Age gold coin front Photograph by Richard Davenport
Late Iron Age gold coin front
Photograph by Richard Davenport

Another special mention this week to Derbyshire Museums Manager, Ros Westwood, who has been awarded Fellowship of the Museums Association from the President of the Museums Association, David Anderson at the recent Museums Association conference in Cardiff. Well done, Ros!

RWestwood (800x571)