A new Roman inscription turned up in Manchester (England) this month. Before you get too excited, there were no traces of paint on the inscription (as far as I know): the red lettering is mine, to make it easier to read.
The inscription is a Roman altar, set up by a man called Aelius Victor (whose name occupies lines 5 and 6). Altars were part and parcel of the Roman religious mindset. They were designed as small, free-standing, squared-off columns, some three, four or five feet tall (1.0-1.5 m), with a shallow depression on top. Here the dedicator would offer his or her offering.
I vow to thee ...
The altar itself represents a personal contract between the dedicator (in this case, Aelius Victor) and the deity or deities whom he had invoked. Usually, the dedicator requested some favour of the gods -- safe passage, perhaps, or a successful crop -- and promised to set up an altar in gratitude for a favourable outcome.
The abbreviation on the last line -- V.S.L.L.M. -- is commonly found on altars, and indicates that the dedicator votum solvit laetus libens merito ("fulfilled his vow gladly, willingly and deservedly"). Aelius Victor was thanking the gods for whatever favour he had requested, and was keeping his end of the bargain by setting up the promised altar.
In fact, he was thanking goddesses, for the altar was erected Deabus Matribus Hananeftis et Ollototis ("To the Mother Goddesses Hananeftae and Ollototae"). The Ollototae are previously known from Roman Britain. They are thought to be Germanic goddesses whose name means "of all folk", and their function was presumably a protective one. But exactly why Aelius Victor might have sought their aid remains a mystery.
(I confess that I have never heard of the Hananeftae. Please leave a comment if you can shed any light on them.)