Stelae and the Semiotics of Sacrifice: Worship Traditions in Roman Africa

ancient north africa histories cities and landscapes

Oxford Ancient History Faculty Seminar Hilary Term 2023 Tuesdays 4pm at the Ioannou Centre, 66 St Giles

Ancient North Africa: Histories, Cities, and Landscapes

Week 6 (21 February) Matthew McCarty (UBC)

Stelae and the Semiotics of Sacrifice: Worship Traditions in Roman Africa

Since their discovery in 1930, a group of 2nd-3rd century CE inscribed votive stelae from N’Gaous (Algeria), each of which seems to describe an act called morchomor, has played an outsize role shaping foundational understandings within three distinct fields: biblical, Punic, and Roman-African studies. Yet such interpretations of the stelae, which hold them up as paradigmatic of different historical phenomena, also reveal the ways that culture-historical metanarratives and epigraphic positivism have distorted understandings of ancient North Africa. This paper challenges the assumptions underlying these prevalent models by re-situating the N’Gaous stelae within the context of lived ancient religion and through applying a semiotic framework. I argue that the N’Gaous stelae do not describe a substitution sacrifice; they work to enact that substitution through their textual and visual rhetoric. Acknowledging that the stelae work in this way immediately sets them apart from the stelae – and rites – at other stele-sanctuaries of Roman imperial-period Africa, as even quick comparison will show. Both the aim of the rites – to perform a substitution – and the technical means used to achieve that end – inscribed rhetoric – make the N’Gaous stelae not paradigmatic, but nearly unique. Although the N’Gaous stelae cannot carry the evidentiary burden with which they have been freighted by modern scholarship, understanding them as a kind of ritual bricolage allows us better to understand the processes of religious innovation and invention that characterize the imperial period in North Africa.


Jo Quinn (, Niccolò Mugnai, Monica Hellström, Tim Smith