Describing Depositions

Andreas M. Murgan works at the Institut für Archäologische Wissenschaften at the Goethe-Universität Frankfurt am Main.

As we know, it was a common phenomenon to sacrifice objects in ancient sanctuaries and deposit them as a gift to the gods. It is not surprising, therefore, that we often find traces of such dedications in the form of pits or similar features in the archaeological record. At a glance, it is already obvious that practices varied from case to case.

For instance, objects could be deposited in a small feature or localised area and sealed through burial. These direct and independent dedications make the responsible individuals and small groups tangible. A very good example of this is the sanctuary at Bitalemi adjacent to Gela on Sicily, where several dedications were buried in the sand (Orlandini, 1965–1967). Besides that, such individual depositions could also be placed in an open area, masking the giver and rendering them invisible and unrecognisable with time. At such features, a stratigraphic record could develop in ritual pits. Votive Deposit II from Satricum in Latium may partially serve as an example (Bouma, 1996a; 1996b). Another case is the secondary relocation of donations that were deposited in a sanctuary, caused by its restoration, destruction or overfilling with gifts. The dedicated objects on display were removed from their original context and then buried, usually near to the temple, to avoid the removal of the deity’s belongings. In this case, the primary deposition remains invisible in the archaeological record.

Apart from that, the reasons for the depositions were manifold. On the one hand, people could ask a deity for assistance. On the other hand, dedications could be given in return for a granted favour. Dedications could also be caused by religious obligations, or were performed to avoid divine anger.

These phenomena have long been known to archaeologists and historians and thus are often mentioned in publications concerning sanctuaries, rituals and sacrifices. One of the most common terms is the Greek word bothros. The Greek phrases megaron, thesauros, and thysia are also used. In Latin, votive deposit, favissa, fossa votiva, mundus, and stips are more or less common terms. The existence of these words gives the impression that they were actually in use in antiquity. A deeper etymological analysis, however, clearly shows that most of these terms were not used in the way modern scholarship aims to use them; the modern meanings differ to those of ancient times. For instance, bothros may be translated as “hole” in exactly the same neutral meaning we use it today, being accompanied by added descriptions. To illustrate that point, one need only compare a hole in the tooth, at the golf course, or a black hole in outer space!

In addition to unclear or ambivalent meanings, a proper terminology to describe these phenomena has not been developed in scholarship. More likely, the same feature is often described by different terms (often to avoid repetitions in the text), and sometimes the same term can be applied to totally different examples. Already in the 1960s, Tony Hackens remarked upon this problem in an article (Hackens, 1963). In 1996, Jelle Bouma dedicated a whole chapter of his PhD thesis to this topic, again drawing attention to this problem. Much to his disappointment, he noted about 30 years later, “Since then the situation, unfortunately, has not changed much.” (Bouma, 1996a, p. 43).

Another 20 years later, we must face the facts, which is that the status quo has remained. The current phraseology is hindering advances in research on ancient sanctuaries, since it unnecessarily complicates communications on the topic, preventing us from furthering our understanding of ancient cults and the potential discoveries that remain.

After many years of ongoing research concerning ancient sanctuaries, it seems pointless to re-define the terms in use. Instead we should pay more attention to the proper description and analysis of features, foregoing confusing terms, in order to open up new debate in this still neglected field of research (Murgan, 2015, in press).

Andreas Murgan

(I want to thank Thomas Birch who improved my English)


Bouma, J.W., 1996a. Religio Votiva [1]: The Archaeology of Latial Votive Religion. The 5th – 3rd. c. BC Votive Deposit South West of the Main Temple at ‘Satricum’ Borgo Le Ferriere. The Votive Deposit in a Diachronic and Synchronic Perspective. Votive Gifts as an Entire Social Experience. Groningen, Groningen Institute of Archaeology.

Bouma, J.W., 1996b. Religio Votiva [2]: The Archaeology of Latial Votive Religion. The 5th – 3rd. c. BC Votive Deposit South West of the Main Temple at ‘Satricum’ Borgo Le Ferriere. Report on the Excavations. Strata and Assemblages of the Votive Deposit. Groningen, Groningen Institute of Archaeology.

Hackens, T., 1963. Favisae. In: Université de Louvain, ed. 1963. Études Étrusco-Italiques. Mélanges pour le 25e anniversaire de la chaire d’Étruscologie à l’Université de Louvain. Louvain-la-Neuve, pp. 71–99.

Murgan, A.M., (2015, in press). Bothros, Favissa und Co. – Von rituellen Löchern und ihren Bezeichnungen. In: M. Bolder-Boos, and D. Maschek, eds. Zwischen Göttern und Menschen. Neue Forschungen zu antiken Heiligtümern in Italien. Publikation der internationalen Tagung vom 19. und 20. Juli 2013 in Darmstadt. 16 pages. Bonn, Habelt.

Orlandini, P., 1965–1967. Gela – Depositi votivi di bronzo premonetale nel santuario di Demetra Thesmophoros a Bitalemi. Annali. Istituto italiano di numismatica, 12–14, pp. 1–20.


One thought on “Describing Depositions

  1. Pingback: Are curse tablets votives? | The Votives Project

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