Bryn Mawr Classical Review

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2011.03.57

Philip Kiernan, Miniature Votive Offerings in the North-west Provinces of the Roman Empire. Mentor Bd. 4.   Mainz/Ruhpolding:  Verlag Franz Philipp Rutzen, 2009.  Pp. vi, 300.  ISBN 9783447059916.  €39.00.  

Reviewed by Laurel Taylor, University of North Carolina Asheville (

Miniature artifacts, and in particular, miniature votive artifacts, are often as inscrutable as they are irresistible. Although the phenomenon is practically a global one, occurring in contexts as diverse as Etruscan sanctuaries and Inca mountaintop shrines, their ontological status is far from self-evident, even within a narrowly circumscribed geography, context and culture. What, exactly, does it mean to make something small, and, what is the relationship between smallness and sacredness?

In a new book based upon his 2007 doctoral thesis, P. Kiernan attempts to address these and other questions within the context of miniature and model votive objects in the Roman North-West. Having admirably sifted through excavation reports and museum collections within a broad geographical range, Kiernan has produced a volume the utility of which is manifold: those seeking specific comparanda for miniature votives in the Romano-Celtic world will be delighted by the numerous illustrations and tables; others looking to conduct analogous studies outside the area would be well-advised to consult Kiernan’s book for its formal structure and data display; and, finally, anyone whose inquiry into the meaning and conceit of miniaturization is more broadly based will find Kiernan’s interpretive mode and accommodation of polysemy worthy of consideration. That miniature votives in the Mediterranean rarely merit consideration as a category sui generis also makes this a most welcome contribution to the field.

Kiernan’s “Introduction” begins with an attempt to question the more common— though ultimately reductionist— theory that miniature votive objects are solely the product of economy, with utilitarian and valuable objects suitably replaced by their smaller and less costly doppelgangers. In addition to the substitution model, Kiernan outlines (section 1.4) two other, less common interpretive possibilities for miniature votives—‘ritual miniaturization’ which, as with ritual mutilation, renders the object non-functional and thereby sacred and, ‘symbolic miniaturization,’ by which the object functions as an emblem of a particular divinity or, alternatively, symbolizes the desires of the dedicator (thus, a shield for a warrior’s success in battle). His main interpretive stance is one that does not so much jettison one model and replace it with another as much as it seeks to engage the heterogeneous nature of miniature votives and their respective archaeological contexts.1 Kiernan’s premise is that the ontological nature of these votives can be ascertained from their relationship to what they miniaturize as well as from their contextual relationship to pre-Roman, Iron Age votive behaviors. This is no small task given the geographical range of his study area and it is, thus, somewhat unfortunate that his very next chapter, “Wheels,” quickly highlights the problems of such range. The volume and distribution of miniature wheels is so large that, as Kiernan readily admits, the topic can only be treated in a cursory manner. Still, the chapter provides a satisfactory overview of this votive category, previous scholarship on these objects and their symbolic associations with the Roman-Celtic Jupiter/wheel-god.

In Chapter Three, “Miniature Arms and Armour,” Kiernan addresses the multiplicity of miniature artifact types falling within this broad rubric; these include not only the expected shields, swords and knives but also razors, spearheads and the less common fastenings and fittings that imitate military equipment. This is his strongest chapter by many measures—organizationally, interpretively, visually—and, indeed, could stand alone so thoroughly does he re-present the interpretive methodologies first offered in the introduction, integrate them with the evidence at hand and generously summarize the inherent problems in considering all types of arms and armor as a homogenous group. As elsewhere, Kiernan carefully considers context and stratigraphy in an attempt to understand the performers (elite versus non-elite) and the performance of votive activity (single instance versus continuous dedications, communal versus individual). Single context deposits, relative value of weaponry, and pre-Roman votive activity at each site are all factors Kiernan employs to reconstruct site-specific votive behavior. Table 5 (“A Summary of Miniature Weapons and their Interpretations,” p. 105) near the end of the chapter is an excellent example of the ways in which Kiernan makes profitable use of tables throughout the book; the inclusion of site/find, description, dating, and explanation, with cross-references to chapter sections and figures, allows Kiernan to neatly congeal his evidence and facilitates cross-referencing for the reader.

Kiernan devotes Chapter Four (as well as a lengthy appendix) to the topic of “Miniature Axes,” the second most common miniature artifact in the Roman North-West. His goal with the appendix (a catalogue of over 200 examples) is that of redressing an apparent lack of a typological system and in this he succeeds. Where Kiernan is less successful with this particular category of artifact is in his blanket application of the term ‘votive’ to the entire corpus. Although many come from ritual contexts (sanctuaries, temples, rivers), just as many are without provenience and a not insubstantial number are from villas, cemeteries, oppida, vici, and even an amphitheatre. Elsewhere, Kiernan is so sensitive to regional imbalances in the attention historically devoted to small finds and the potential of such reporting to skew the evidence that it is odd he doesn’t entertain the possibility that some of these axes could have had talismanic or totemic functions. While considering all miniature axes as votive, he cautiously makes the case for establishing the chief symbolic value of the miniature axe as one connected to authority— celestial or terrestrial. In the case of the latter, the axe could be suggestive of priestly authority, evoking the sacena of the Roman world as well as the ritual axe of “Celtic” sacrifice.

Chapter Five, “Coins,” considers the evidence of miniature votives that are morphologically, materially and/or dimensionally similar to coins. As with weaponry, the same phenomenon occurs in which high-value, large-volume, occasional coin dedications of the Iron Age are replaced by low-value, small-volume and frequent dedications during first centuries BCE and CE. While acknowledging the oft-proposed theory that ritual, non-circulating coins may have been made specifically for votive activity (for which there is some convincing evidence at Gallic sites2) Kiernan is more interested in the evidence of low-value substitutes and to that end considers groups of ceramic discs, lead discs, coin impressions, and plated or counterfeit coins all as economical substitutes for real coinage. The section on plated coinage (5.4) is an interesting summary of the various processes of counterfeiting, a not uncommon phenomenon in antiquity. With the exception of the minimissimi (a coin hoard from Lydney Park whose average coin size is 2.75mm; section 5.5), we really are out of the territory of miniaturized votives in this chapter, though the inclusion of these substitutes does align with his proposed terminology (section 1.2) of models as non-utilitarian objects irrespective of size.

Chapter Six, “Ceramic and Metal Vessels, Lamps, Tripods and Stands, Miniature Tableware,” treats a variety of objects loosely linked together by their association with the consumption and/or containment of food and drink or other substances used in cultic practice. Kiernan’s suggestion that many of these miniature vessels are not substitutes for life-sized prototypes but, instead, functional containers for ritual sips or scraps of food (here, he invokes communion glasses used in Protestant churches) is an interesting one. Chapter Seven, “Varia,” includes, among other artifacts, model objects related to travel while Chapter Eight, “The so-called Mithrassymbole,” provides an overview of miniaturized tools and animals found exclusively in mortuary contexts but historically considered alongside votive miniatures.

Kiernan’s “Conclusion” largely restates the evidence presented in the conclusions of each previous chapter. This is helpful but one wishes for a more engaged treatment of his evidence with recent scholarship on assimilation and religious syncretism. By now, the energetic discussions surrounding localized experience and acculturation within the Roman West are practically in their mid-life stage and while Kiernan does give a nod to these, a more substantive interaction with the debates and the contribution of his material to them would have been welcome.3 Such issues demand to be reckoned with not in the least because of the chronological framework of his study and his emphasis on the pedigree of Iron Age dedications in Romano-Celtic contexts. Assimilation studies have also historically tended to focus on the tangible results of acculturation and less on behaviors, which are obviously much harder to detect in the archaeological record. In both respects, Kiernan has a rich body of material to examine and a more nuanced reading of the material vis à vis regional patterns, ethnic groups, tribal boundaries and current scholarship would have substantially enriched his concluding chapter.4

Overall, this is a small shortcoming compared to the many virtues of the book. Included among these virtues are Kiernan’s discussion of context, when possible, and discovery, if known. For example, the section on the Salisbury hoard (3.2) provides not only context and content but also a description of the 1984 clandestine discovery of this important hoard. The inclusion of discovery narratives within the text enliven what might otherwise be a repetitive, catalogue format for this sort of book. Similarly, with find spots and sanctuaries that have been inadequately published, such as the Bois du Flavier sanctuary near Mouzon (section 3.3), Kiernan provides detailed site descriptions as well as site plans. The production value of the book is most impressive— artifact drawings are frequently at a 1:1 scale and illustrations, tables and distribution maps are abundant and boldfaced within the text. Likewise, chapter subheadings are numbered and, thus, easily cross-referenced while helpful indices of sites and museums are included at the end. In sum, this is a study that will provide specialists with invaluable resources and information while also serving the non-specialist as an excellent introduction to the study of miniaturized objects in European and Mediterranean contexts.


1.   Yet another idea informing miniature votives is the notion of smallness as an attempt to reach an ideal invisible world. See Mack J. 2007: The Art of Small Things. London: British Museum Press.
2.   See Haselgrove C. and Wigg-Wolf D. 2005: Iron Age Coinage and Ritual Practices. Studien zur Fundmünzen der Antike 20. Mainz: von Zabern.
3.   Kiernan (p. 215, n. 5) mentions Woolf G. 1998: Becoming Roman: The Origins of Provincial Civilization in Gaul. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press and Mattingly, D. 2004: “Being Roman: expressing identity in a provincial setting.” Journal of Roman Studies 17.1-26 but, curiously, nothing else from the large and ever increasing body of scholarship on acculturation and local experience in the Roman world.
4.   Nic Terrenato’s notion, for example, of “cultural bricolage,” a process by which pre-Roman material or behaviors absorbed new significance or utility in a Roman context, would have provided a fruitful paradigm through which to examine this material—Terrenato, N. 1998: "The Romanization of Italy: global acculturation or cultural bricolage?" in C. Forcey, J. Hawthorne, and R. Witcher, editors, TRAC 97. Proceedings of the Seventh Annual Theoretical Roman Archaeology Conference, Oxbow Books, 20-27.

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