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Museum Object of the Month (January 2019)

10 Jan 2019

Sculpture, presumed Bacchus, found at Watercrook Fort, Kendal.
KMA 1979.281
On long-term loan from the department of European Prehistory at the British Museum. 

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This stone, high-relief sculpture found at Kendal’s Watercrook Fort is thought to represent the Roman God Bacchus as an infant. Bacchus was the Roman God of fertility, festivals and wine. Often portrayed naked and languishing against a tree trunk supporting a fruiting grape vine, he signified youthfulness and vigour. He can be found holding an empty 'cantharus' (wine cup) to suggest a successful party or festival.

His name derives from the Greek word 'baccos' meaning wine. The Ancient Romans often adopted aspects of classical Greek mythology to give their culture credibility. The legend of Bacchus closely resembles that of Dionysus, the Greek God of wine, who according to Greek mythology was born in Thebes following the union of Zeus, head of the Greek Pantheon, and the mortal daughter of Cadmus King of Thebes, Semele. The Greeks believed that while Semele was pregnant with Dionysus one of Zeus’ lightning bolts killed her. Similarly, in Roman mythology, Bacchus was born from the thigh of Jupiter, King of the Roman Gods, into which Mercury had sewn him after one of Jupiter’s thunderbolts had killed his mother, Semele, during her pregnancy.

In ancient Rome public festivals officially remembered Bacchus, however by 186BC a more elaborate, debaucherous and secret form of worship, the Bacchanalia, had reached Rome. This caused the authorities so much concern that the Senate passed a decree banning this new form of worship.

Archaeologists believe that this stone fragment could be a tombstone, an isolated cult object, or a remnant of the decoration from a special building. Come and see this wonderful artefact on permanent display in our Kendal and Westmorland Gallery. 

With thanks to Nicholas Stainforth B.A. for his research and assistance in the compilation of this information.

Image Credit: British Museum Image Service