History Stories

Analysis of the child-like, four-inch hand shows that it previously held an unknown object in its palm.

Archaeologists have discovered a bronze, child-sized hand at Vindolanda, an ancient Roman auxiliary fort in Northumberland, England. Excavators unearthed the unsettlingly lifelike hand near a temple dedicated to the god Jupiter Dolichenus, suggesting it may have had religious importance.

“[T]he newly discovered hand most likely served a cult function and may have been closely associated with Jupiter Dolichenus, a god and mystery cult that was widespread in the Roman Empire from the early 2nd to mid 3rd centuries AD,” says the Vindolanda Trust in its press release on the finding.

Not much information about the cult’s beliefs and rituals has survived, but archaeologists have found comparable hands near other Jupiter Dolichenus temples. Analysis of the nearly four-inch hand—which kind of looks like one of those creepy hand-shaped jewelry stands—shows that it previously held an unknown object in its palm.

Still, there are some clues about the cult archaeologists can draw from the discovery. Andrew Birley, CEO and Director of excavations at the Vindolanda Trust, said in the press release: “this find being made in a nearby area reminds us that the life of the temple and the practices associated with the worship of Dolichenus had clearly stretched beyond the confines of its stone walls.”

Bronze hand discovered

(Credit: The Vindolanda Trust)

The discovery came just a few weeks into a planned five-year excavation targeting Vindolanda  history between about 208 and 212 A.D., a small sliver of time during the Roman Empire’s Severan period, or dynasty.

The Severn period began when Septimius Severus became emperor in 193 and ended with the death of Alexander Severus in 235. The cult of Jupiter Dolichenus enjoyed support from Severn emperors during this period, but came under attack when Maximinus Thrax became emperor after Alexander.

The Jupiter Dolichenus cult was especially popular in military centers like Vindolanda. Often depicted with a double ax in one hand and a thunderbolt in the other, Jupiter Dolichenus was known as a god who controlled military success. The Independent’s archaeology correspondent even speculates that the recently-discovered hand could have been a gift to thank the god for victory in a little-known yet extremely bloody Roman invasion of Scotland in 209-210 A.D.

The hand is currently on display at the Vindolanda museum. In its press release, the  Vindolanda Trust says it hopes “the continued archaeological investigation of the site at Vindolanda may help to shed more light on the religious practice of Dolichenus in this period of history.”

RELATED CONTENT