Wednesday, October 16, 2013

The Haruspex Stone

The inexpertly carved stone
The city of Bath in England has been an important location for human beings for millenia. The spring there produces 240,000 gallons of 114° (Fahrenheit) water every day. This phenomenon amazed our ancestors; they attributed it to divine forces, most notably the goddess Sulis. When the Romans came, they named the place Aquæ Sulis [Latin: The waters of Sulis], and equated Sulis to Minerva, the Roman goddess of wisdom. The Romans used the spring for an elaborate system of channels and pumps and rooms for bathing, both for relaxation and for health.

In 1965, beneath the Grand Pump Room of the Roman complex, at the level of a Roman-era temple to Sulis Minerva, the stone pictured here was discovered. The inscription reads "DEAE SVLI L MARCIVS MEMOR HARVSP DD" and stands for "To the goddess Sul, Lucius Marcus, a grateful Haruspex, donated out of his devotion."

The presence of a Haruspex in Bath raised eyebrows. A Haruspex [Latin (roughly): entrail observer] was one who predicted the future by examining the guts of animals (as well as other natural phenomena). This was a very old practice, known to Romans and before them the Etruscans. Its presence can be established in the East prior to Greco-Roman times as well. Haruspices (the plural) were not common—only 60 existed at a time—and practiced an art that, like astrology, not everyone believed in but that they might turn to for special occasions. The presence of a Haruspex in Bath in a location so far from Rome suggests how significant Bath/Aquæ Sulis was to the locals at that time.

Curiously, the inscription has been "edited." "MEMOR" is actually carved as "MEMR" with the "O" added above the second M. "HAR" is centered on its line, with "VSP" in smaller letters crammed afterward, throwing off the symmetry of the inscription. The "MEMOR" looks like a necessary edit after the carver's accidental omission of the "O." "HAR" might have needed the addition because the rarity of the position meant the abbreviation wasn't familiar to people who didn't know that "HAR" meant a Haruspex. Another theory is that the carver simply was not very literate, and that Lucius Marcus had to have him edit the stone after the initial carving.

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