Sanctuaries of the Gallo-Roman Period as Pivots of Spatial and Temporal Orientation

Melanie Sticker-Jantscheff

The transition from Iron Age to Gallo-Roman culture following the Roman conquest of Gaul in the last century BCE is an example of a cultural transformation process conventionally labeled as ‘Romanization’. In recent decades, studies have shown that rather than complete relinquishment of traditional culture in favour of adopting foreign and supposedly superior ideas this process can best be understood as a creative generation of a new culture, not least actively shaped by local elites.

Urbanization and especially the development of a civic society as part of the Roman Empire profoudly changed peoples lives on different levels: societal, political and religious. The latter – among other things - can be seen reflected in the architecture of sanctuaries built during this time period. Square temples, often with an ambulatory, are considered a newly developed characteristic form of Gallo-Roman architecture, but with equal importance Roman style podium temples were erected. Some sanctuaries were built on ancient cult sites whereas others were constructed at new locations.

A range of comparative studies on sanctuaries in Roman Gaul exist, as well as studies on the nature and role of Gallo-Roman religion. Archaeological excavation reports and case study analyses are also available in many cases. With very few exceptions however, one aspect tends to be heavily underexplored if not completely neglected in these studies: the spatial relation between a sanctuary and its surroundings, that is its orientation.

Topographical features, landmarks and transport routes as well as rising and setting points of the sun, moon and stars at or above the horizon – briefly speaking landscape and skyscape – might have played a decisive role for either retaining or chosing anew a sanctuary’s location and for orientating a building. The relationship between a building and its surroundings possibly provides additional clues of cultural traits: of what might have been valued and / or of what might have been feared; of how space might have been allocated and of how time within the cycle of the year might have been organized.

Within the framework outlined above and focussing on, but not exclusive to, the area of the Helvetii and the Roman province Germania Superior, the present project takes a look at how sanctuaries of the Gallo-Roman period interact with landscape and skyscape. It explores in which ways, if at all, the most basic of architectural elements, a building’s orientation, allows to draw inferences about the world view and cosmological beliefs of its constructors during a time of profound cultural change.