Remember the too exciting descriptions of pottery from the last post? If the answer is no, I don’t blame you. But something that stood out for me is the fact that there were seven mortarium found at Carrawburgh.
In case you don’t know what a mortarium is, think mortar and pestle and you’re golden. A typical Roman mortarium had grit on the inside to assist in breaking down whatever was being ground, and a spout for pouring out the finished product. The pestle took the form of a sturdy, rounded on the bottom stick.
I frankly find nothing significant in the number, though it would be bewitching if there were indeed one per Grade (I always thought it would be awesome if the twelve apostles were each one of the astrological signs, but I digress.) The remains of four were found inside the mithraeum and three were outside in the garbage tip. No, I think there just happened to be remains of seven, just as there were however many remains of jars or cups. What interests me is the item itself.
Over breakfast this morning, the wife and I were having one of our usual conversations; manga scanlations and elevating a common kitchen item to ritual use. I really lead the best life.
Assigning ritual significance to things is nothing new. She immediately pointed out that cauldrons are used in Wiccan ritual, and the apothecary/alchemical imagery of a mortar and pestle taking plant and/or mineral matter and making something entirely new from it are age old. My mind flew to the Chinese myth of the rabbit of the moon pounding the elixir of immortality, and of Baba Yaga and her mode of transportation. These examples help make it okay to think of something pedestrian as important.
But there’s more. The Carrawburgh mortarium pictured above is Samian ware. I said to the wife, it’s like my cast iron frying pan made of Lenox. And the quote that prompted this post comes from Eating and Drinking in Roman Britain, p 44, discussing the various sizes this pottery form takes: The large examples tend to be of the late first to mid-third centuries, and are apparently missing in the late third and fourth centuries. These must have been used in a different way from most mortaria as they are far too heavy to hold, and it has long been suggested that they had some specialised culinary or commercial use. Samian mortaria are similar in size to the average coarse pottery ones, but the colour-coated copies are noticeably smaller.
Her spellings, not mine. 😉 So, Seder plate like, a common kitchen item somehow found its way into a ritual. Kind of like making gravy in a pot on the stove, but then serving it in your Lenox gravy boat. I won’t say for ritual use, but having a dressed up mortarium present in a mithraeum was important at some point. In what capacity we can only imagine.