3rd-2nd c. BC

Mas Castellar (Pontós - Alt Empordà)

The Altar of Mas Castellar de Pontós

Altar of the late 3rd Century BC, white marble, founded in the House 1, Department 3, the agrarian estabishment of Mas Castellar de Pontós (Alt Empordà). This is a monolithic piece carved in white marble in the shape of a column. The column is crowned by a classic Ionic-style capital with small scrolls and is more developed on the front and unfinished on the back. The shaft has a fluted circular section and widens at the bottom to form a wide, delicate plinth. At the top of the shaft surrounding the entire perimeter is a moulding decorated with plant motifs of lanceolate leaves between the striae separated by the shaft edges and framed in pearls. The front of the shaft shows heavy wear at the base of the striae. This wear could be explained by continuous touching of the stone during worship, a phenomenon that can also be seen on pillars bearing a Virgin Mary. At its zenith it has a central quadrangular depression and around the non-indented part there are incised traces, some of them very deep, that have been interpreted as axe and knife blows.

Petrographic analyses have determined that the stone came from a Pentelic marble quarry in the Athens area exploited from the early 6th century BC. This was the most widely used marble in the construction of the Acropolis and also for architectural and sculptural elements, until the Romans began to use Carrara marble in the mid-2nd century BC. Pentelic marble even reached Empúries, where several pieces have been documented, such as the statue of Aesculapius. It would not be surprising if the Pontós altar had arrived via that route to be reused for the purpose of worship.

The altar was found destroyed in the main room of House 1 of the farm, a large house of Hellenistic architectural modules with eight rooms and two internal courtyards, one of which was preceded by a porticoed vestibule from which the room was accessed. The altar fragments were scattered around a large hearth in the centre. This room also contained other elements that can be linked to a bloody cult and acts of purification, libation and animal sacrifice. Of particular note are the numerous remains of dog with traces of knife cuts, dismemberment and thermal alteration indicating that the dog was sacrificed and consumed. This leads us to believe that the altar was used as the main place for animal sacrifices. This delicacy was consumed at a specific moment in the life of the archaeological site. It would have been preceded by a bloody offering to the deities of agriculture, drought and love and have ended in a grand banquet. In addition to the dog, other domesticated animals such as oxen, lambs, goats and pigs were consumed. Mixing dog remains with domestic animals to be eaten at a feast indicated the importance of the dog as one of the most human-friendly animals, one that probably shared a home and a bed and sometimes a tomb. The dog was also related to the underworld deities and the crop and agriculture cycles.

This use for worship of an altar in the form of a column with a capital associated with bloody sacrifices is not trivial. There are many examples of Attic red-figure ware vessels depicting animal sacrifices on altars in the form of a column, sometimes with a volute capital that served as a sacrificial table. This obvious and interesting documentation rules out any other interpretation of the Pontós altar as a possible statue pedestal or a support for the altar itself.

Shortly after this ritual banquet, the inhabitants of Pontós abandoned the site they had occupied for four and a half centuries. Before leaving they destroyed the altar, perhaps to avoid possible ridicule. It was at the beginning of the 2nd century BC, when the Romans controlled the Empordà region.

Enriqueta Pons

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