Journal of Archaeology in the Low Countries 3-1 (November 2011)R.J. van Zoolingen: Rural cult places in the civitas Cananefatium

5 Rectangular structures as cult places in rural communities

Outside the civitas Cananefatium our knowledge of cult practices among rural communities is more detailed, especially in terms of the places of worship and the nature of cult. A common type of rural cult place is the open-air sanctuary, which occurs in many parts of Europe as a mainly rectangular structure. These structures have been known as Viereckschanze, sanctuaires de type belges, enclos cultuels, Grabgärten, temenoi, open-air sanctuaries or simply rural cult places. Most structures date from the late Iron Age and Roman times. There has been much debate on the function and interpretation of these structures, with interpretations varying from places of worship to tombs or even central places of assembly. For instance, Viereckschanzen are more often considered to have been settlement areas instead of cult places. Terms like sanctuaires de type belges suggest that this type of cult place is representative of a certain ethnic group, whereas a series of similar structures is known from far outside the known tribal area of the Belgae (cf. Cabanillas de la Torre 2010). These structures follow a certain pattern and are generally considered to have been rural places of worship (for instance Roymans 1987; Slofstra & Van der Sanden 1987; Bourgeois & Nenquin 1996; Fontijn 2002; Gerritsen 2003, 150-167).

The rural cult places have a number of features in common. It is important to note that not all structures have the same characteristics and interpretation often hinges on the accompanying finds. However, they are all more or less rectangular in shape (Fontijn 2002, 150). Some structures are square, for example the ones in Oss-Ussen (Slofstra & Van der Sanden 1987, 131-135) and Nijmegen (Fontijn 2002, 156-164 or square in shape but not completely closed, for example Wijshagen (Maes & Van Impe 1987) and Geldermalsen-Hondsgemet (Van Renswoude & Roessingh 2009, 570; structure O1). Whatever the shape, what all structures have in common is that a specific area is restricted from the surrounding outside world by means of palisades, ditches or embankments (Slofstra & Van der Sanden 1987, 155; Fontijn 2002, 150). The orientation is in many cases an important aspect of the structure, especially with reference to the four cardinal directions. Examples are Alphen (Van der Sanden & Van der Klift 1984), Wijnegem (Cuyt 1985; Slofstra & Van der Sanden 1987, 138-143) and Nijmegen (Fontijn 2002, 169). Likewise the interior of the areas was treated with care. Post and pit configurations occur in almost all rural cult places. Examples include Hoogeloon (Slofstra 1982, 102-112), Gournay-sur-Aronde (Bruneaux et al. 1985) and Kontich (Annaert 1993). It is known from classical sources that trees played an important role in places of worship[2]. In that sense, the post configurations might have been a symbolic representation of a forest (Benjamins 1999, 90). However, it has also been suggested that such post configurations may be representations of stellar constellations (Therkorn 2004).

Cult places are often situated at the outskirts of prominent features in the landscape, such as cemeteries and watercourses. Fontijn (2002, 156-164) demonstrated the relationship of cult places with the world of the dead, seen in the location of the sanctuaries near cemeteries or burial mounds (see also Bittel 1981). He notes that the Iron Age cult place at the Kops Plateau in Nijmegen is situated halfway between a cemetery and a settlement, arguing that this position demonstrates the transition zone between the world of the dead and the secular world. This status as a ‘corridor’ is further reinforced by the square shape, which would express ambivalence and individuality (Fontijn 2002, 164). Revisiting of, or digging graves in, older places of worship is a known activity in the Late Roman period and thereafter (see for example Vermeulen & Bourgeois 2000). However, cult places lacking any relationship with tombs are found from the Late Iron Age onwards, showing a growing diversification in function. Under Roman influence new religious ideas are introduced, resulting in the replacement of ancestor worship by the veneration of anthropomorphic gods after the Mediterranean model (Fontijn 2002, 170-171). The loss of a connection with cemeteries implies that from Roman times onwards, cult places were regularly situated closer to or even within the boundaries of settlements (Fontijn 2002, 165-171).

The archaeological material associated with rectangular structures often offers strong evidence for a ritual context. Material culture can likewise also indicate less fixed cult places, for instance offering sites or off-site depositions. Aberrant complexes are in particular seen as ritually interpretable, though less divergent finds certainly could have played a similar role during rites. Regardless of the materials used, it is clear that the deposition of objects was common practice (Slofstra & Van der Sanden 1987). It is assumed that the sacrifices were useful in achieving certain goals, to influence situations or to express gratitude to the divine (Derks 1998, 215-239; Groot 2009, 49-50). Votive offerings are therefore common in places of worship. The offerings are usually found in clusters and in the vicinity of special locations within a cult place, such as post configurations and sacrificial pits. They mainly consist of pottery, but metal and organic objects are also found. Many complete pots are found, suggesting that the contents were also part of the offering. The ritual of bending or breaking objects, such as pottery or metal or bone objects, before sacrificing is another known practice in places of worship (Slofstra & Van der Sanden 1987, 131)