Honouring the gods in the classical Mediterranean realm and on its fringes


Right up to the mid-seventies, historians were inclined to set too much store by Pliny the Elder[1]'s text describing the mistletoe harvest. They supposed that the Gauls had no cult sites other than forests and waters. They further believed that the Gauls conducted sacrifices in the forests and that they did not, unlike the Romans or the Greeks, have the enjoyment of built cult places, that is of sanctuaries. This representation has been altered by the discovery of cult sites[2] dating back to the Iron Age[3]. The examples chosen in this chapter address the period stretching from the 4th to the 1st century BC.

How should Northern and Southern Gaul be construed? In 2003, the journal Gallia dedicated an issue to the “Cults and Sanctuaries in France during the Iron Age”. Introducing it, P. Arcelin and J.-L. Brunaux indicated that the break-down into 5 zones[4] reflected the current trend in French research on the Iron Age. The seventies and eighties saw the first discoveries of major sanctuaries in Northern France, which overturned the vision historians and archaeologists held of the Gauls' religion. Meanwhile, the statues and remains of porticoes discovered in the 19th century in Southern Gaul contributed to a better knowledge of these peoples' diverse religious practices.

Map of Gaul © SA, CERHIO
  1. Pliny the Elder (23-79 AD)

    First century Roman writer, author of an encyclopaedia entitled Natural History (Naturalis Historia) running to 37 volumes. It is Pliny's only work to have reached us and it has long served as a reference in science and technology. Pliny compiled the knowledge of his age in subjects as far ranging as natural sciences, astronomy, “anthropology”, psychology, history, etc.

  2. Cult sites

    This term was chosen because the sense it carries is broader than that of “sanctuary”. The cult site, is in J. Scheid's words “a place where archaeological evidence of religious activity of one kind or another have been unearthed”.

  3. Iron Age

    Proto-historic period marked by the prevalent use of iron. Its timescale varies according to the cultural and geographic area under review. For continental and central Europe, the Iron age is further broken into two categories based on eponymous sites the Hallstatt culture (930-430 BC, in reference to the village of Hallstatt, Austria where 19th century discoveries stood as a template for the first Iron Age civilisation) and the La Tène period (c. 450 -50/30 BC in reference to the site at La Tène, on the banks of Lake Neufchâtel in Switzerland which sets the template for the second Iron Age, or La Tène culture. Historians working on Northern Gaul do their chronological setting in terms of La Tène culture, those working on Southern Gaul also known as Mediterranean Celtic, tend to refer to an Iron Age culture.

  4. Five zones

    Namely Northern France (Champagne-Ardennes, Ile de France, Nord, Basse-Normandie, Haute-Normandie, Pas-de-Calais, Picardie), Western France (Britany, Pays de la Loire), Center-Eastern France (Auvergne, Burgundy, Franche-Comté, Rhônes-Alpes), France from the centre to the Pyrenees (Aquitaine, Centre, Limousin, Midi-Pyrénées, Poitou-Charentes), South-Eastern France (Languedoc-Roussillon, Midi-Pyrénées, Provence-Alpes-Côte d'Azur). New discoveries can now be added to those recorded in that publication, for instance in Corent in the Puy de Dôme or on the site of the Mormont on the Swiss Plateau.

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