The Battlesden ring bearing the inscription 'Deo Totat', found by Greg Dyer. © PAS
A new discovery that could change the way we think about Roman Britain has provided archaeologists with the missing link to a bloodthirsty ancient Celtic warrior god.
For years, metal detectorists in and around Lincolnshire have been digging up Roman-era finger rings with the mysterious letters TOT inscribed on them.
The significance of the three letters had been long debated.
“Up until recently there were about a dozen of these rings known, mostly from Lincolnshire,” explained Adam Daubney, Lincolnshire Finds Liaison Officer for the Portable Antiquities Scheme, which helps record archaeological finds.
Experts in Roman history had for some time suspected that TOT was a misspelled abbreviation of the Celtic deity Toutates, so he decided to research further and found 44 examples of the ‘TOT’ rings, mostly from Lincolnshire and dating from the second and third centuries AD, the time of the Roman occupation of Britain.
The latest find, discovered by detectorist Greg Dyer in Battlesden, Bedfordshire, had an expanded inscription reading DEO TOTAT, deo being Latin for god, showing that TOT must, in fact, have been the ancient deity. The full inscription roughly translates as ‘To the God Totatis, use this and be happy’.
The side of the ring reads 'Felix', or happiness. © PAS
Toutates was one of the principal deities of the Celtic world, although little is known about him.
“There are two main sources that mention Toutates - the first was the Roman poet Lucan, who wrote from between AD39-65, and refers to him as the ‘dreaded Toutates’," explained Adam. "A document in the ninth century also describes worshipers of Toutates offering human sacrifices to him.”
The document goes on to say how followers would kill their offerings by plunging them headfirst into a vat of liquid until they drowned.
Although rings with the names of Roman gods have previously been found in Britain this is the first time that a ring bearing the name of a local god has been identified.
“It is very, very rare to be able to look at an artefact (from this period) and say it is native British and not Roman and with this you can say that,” said Adam.
Adam decided to plot the finds on a map, leading to an important discovery: “When we map them they almost exactly mirror the limits of the Iron Age tribe Corieltauvi.”
One of the other 'TOT' rings found in the region. © PAS
It shows that the Corieltauvi was active with clearly defined borders well into the Roman period, covering the area east of the River Trent through Lincolnshire, Nottinghamshire and Leicestershire, and that native tribes may have had more freedom to pursue their own religions and lifestyle than previously thought.
“It is a case of life goes on as normal in this region,” said Adam.
The find looks set to change the way we think about British life under the Roman occupation - it could indicate that it was a political move to show that the Roman army was sympathetic to local gods or perhaps that there was a resurgence of tribalism in this period. It certainly helps to establish Toutates as a key tribal deity in Roman Britain.
“It really shows the importance of recording finds and the success of the Portable Antiquity Scheme all round,” added Adam.
The cult of Toutates is thought to have died out with the Saxon invasions of the fifth century and the introduction of Christianity, although if the name is familiar to some readers, it could be from the Asterix the Gaul comic books, where it is an oft-heard curse from the books’ protagonists.
The Portable Antiquities Scheme (PAS) is a voluntary scheme to record archaeological objects found by members of the public in England and Wales. More information is available on the PAS website.