The insula had two formal areas of public religious activity at the time of the eruption. The Well area had been the site of a local neighbourhood cult from at least the second century BC. The plot known as the Shrine had only taken on its final form after the earthquake and it is not known for certain what type of activity was being carried out in the space immediately before this. Religious activity permeated all aspects of Roman life and the small finds demonstrate various different aspects. Two connected with foundation deposits are considered further here. The role perfume played in religious life is considered here.
Two foundation deposits marking the start of activity in the Casa delle Vestali and in the Shrine were recovered. These consist of deposits of small vessels called calice. Such deposits are widespread in Pompeii and are normally associated with burnt offerings of foodstuffs. Individual examples of calice were found in various deposits throughout the insula, sometimes occurring in make-up layers prior to a change of use. These too may have been deliberately deposited as part of change of use rituals. David Griffiths and I have written a paper about the use of miniature vessels in VI.1 which is available here.
Fired clay cone (Catalogue no. 9.65). (Photo: Mike Baxter)
Fired clay tablet with stamped depiction of a maze. (Catalogue no. 9.58).
(Photo: Hilary Cool)
One of the calice from the Shrine foundation deposit. (Catalogue no 9.4) (Photo: David Griffiths)
Also associated with very early activity in the Shrine which can be dated to the second century BC, there are two enigmatic objects made of fired clay. One of these is a hand-moulded fired clay tablet which has been impressed with a maze design. Mazes and labyrinths had many associations to do with spiritual journeys and funerals in the ancient mind. It is likely that this was intended to be an object of power and thus suitable for a ritual deposit. In the same deposit there was also a decorated conical fired clay object and the stone pestle discussed in connection with wall painting. The latter was still functional when it was deposited and seems too large to be a chance loss. When it is considered alongside two very unusual objects like the tablet and cone, it seems likely that here we are dealing with structured deposition with ritual intent.
The Well and Fountain Area
Left the area as painted by François Mazois and published in Les Ruins de Pompei in 1824. The painting and altar of the crossroads shrine can clearly be seen. Above the sadly bare wall as it appeared in 2008. (Photo Mike Baxter).
A public well was built at the foot of the insula towards the end of the second century or early first century BC. The area around it obviously became a much frequented space and the excavations have shown that it was the focus of repeated deposits of small discs of fired clay from an early stage. They were hand-made, slightly conical and had a ridge along the apex. Grasso in her study of the miniature vessels of Pompeii called them coperchi (lids) but the deposits of them in the Well area did not have any other items which they could have acted as lids for. In the article about the use of miniature vessels in VI.1 David Griffiths and I suggested they might have been a form of percussion instrument. Certainly the ridges make it natural to hold them vertically and a not unpleasing sound is created if two are struck together.
Coperchi are rare in Pompeii and apparently absent outside of the town. In this they are unlike the calici which are widespread throughout southern Italy. Annibolleti has drawn attention to a class of niche and altar shrines in Pompeii which she associates with the veneration of the spirits of the neighbourhood. One of these had coperchi in a foundation deposit. Very probably the coperchi around the Well were associated with the veneration of a similar neighbourhood spirit, and it is tempting to wonder whether this was the spirit of the water. Public wells were not particularly numerous in Pompeii.
By the time of the eruption the Well area had become the site of a crossroads shrine. A painting on the side of the disused well housing shows a procession of the dignitaries associated with the organisation of this with the the image of the presiding spirit. Below was an altar where offerings could be made. Fortunately François Mazois painted this scene early in the nineteenth century and published it in Les Ruines de Pompei as now there is nothing left of the painting and the altar is an undiagnostic block of stone (see pictures above).
It is noticeable that there is a concentration of phallic pendants in the Well area. Two were found during the recent excavation and one during those of the eighteenth century. The recent finds first appear in the Augustan period, a period when the water supply was re-organised and also a time when some people consider a more formal organisation of crossroads shrines was promoted. Phallic pendants were not exclusively associated with males, but it is clear that the ancient authors thought they were particularly appropriate for them. If the coperchi were percussion instruments this would point to female protagonists in the original rites as clapper-like devices were typically used by them in dance and in processions. The dignitaries of the crossroads shrine painted on the well housing in contrast are all male. There are fascinating hints here that in the Augustan period there may have been a male appropriation of a space where females may have been the leading votaries before.
The use of the area is discussed more fully here in the paper on the miniature vessels. That was written before I appreciated the interesting concentration of phallic amulets in the area which is an intriguing addition to the story.
A coperchio (Catalogue no. 9.40) (Photo David Griffiths)
Contents copyright H.E.M. Cool and M.J. Baxter 2016