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Guest Author Essay: Temples, Shrines and the "Sacrilisation" of IA Sites

Guest author: Dr. Keith Ray, County Archaeologist for Herefordshire, 2004

Temples in the landscape

Religion always seems to be treated as a "residual" or ancillary category in the archaeology of Roman Britain. However, to so marginalise religious practice is to misunderstand the centrality of the unseen in the lives of "romanised" Britons across three and a half centuries of Roman Imperial rule. The evidence is nonetheless often at best vestigial - at least in part because shrines and casual cult location are rarely identified through pot-scatter in ploughed fields.

Besides the new inscription evidence for a temple of Jupiter in association either with the fort or mansio at Leintwardine, there are some further indications of the presence of temples in the county. For instance, there have been finds indicative of a temple on a hilltop at Stretton Grandison (Walters, 1908, 195). Again (and perhaps not surprisingly) this is in close proximity to a roadside settlement. There is also a suggested temple at Ariconium (Jackson, 2000).

The altars at Hereford itself represent a remarkable concentration of shrine or temple furniture, and it has been suggested therefore that there was some kind of ritual focus near the crossing of the river Wye here (Shoesmith, 1980). At Broad Street in 2000, during the renewal of a main by Welsh Water, observations were made of some stone rubble apparently containing also opus signinum, sealed below medieval levels. This rubble might therefore represent the remains of significant collapsed Roman buildings.

A find that has been dismissed as indicative of the existence of a shrine or temple was the figure of Mercury found at Staunton-on-Arrow. This stone carving was found during the clearing of a rockery at the vicarage, and it is possible that it had been imported into the site by the rector, a known local antiquary (Painter, 1967). This may be the case, but other finds of Romano-British pottery have been made nearby, and the current residents say that they have found Roman coins in the garden in recent years.

The evidence for less formal worship is thinner still. An example is the two stone carved heads was found in the 1980s near Stretton Grandison during drainage works (O'Donnell, 1986).

Roman Christian Herefordshire

The scant evidence for Christianity in the county has been reviewed recently (Ray, 2001). A strap-end found by chance at Kenchester conforms to a type well established as having Christian connotations (ibid. 106; Mawer, 1995, 124). Meanwhile, at Upton Bishop, the building of a vestry in the nineteenth century resulted in the uncovering of medieval carved stones, and an enigmatic fragment of what appears to be a Roman tombstone. It has been suggested that the two figures in adjacent niches on this stone may be portrayals of early Christians at prayer, given the similarity of the treatment of vestments between the Upton Bishop figures and the well-known Lullingstone frieze figures (Ray, 2001).

Part of the reason that the Upton Bishop stone may be significant to the story of Christianity in Roman Herefordshire is that the best evidence for organised Christian communities comes from just this area. This is in the documented existence of Dubricius, as a bishop of the early church in the Ariconium/Archenfield area just to the south of Upton Bishop.

A "sacred" hillfort?

Perhaps the most remarkable indications of religious ritual and practice nonetheless come from an abandoned hillfort. Croft Ambrey, north of Leominster, appears to be Herefordshire's most complex Iron Age hillfort. However, Stanford's excavations in the 1960s added a further dimension to this, relating to activity there after the site was abandoned. Stanford saw this abandonment as having taken place following the Roman conquest, but on the evidence of the dating of a brooch sequence the site was long since abandoned (Haselgrove, 1997)

Stanford also mis-interpreted as an annexe, the southern area of the original hillfort (Ray and Hoverd, 2003, 23-5). In this area, he excavated a large platform and associated mound, that was found to have a complex developmental history, and produced many finds including pins and brooches. This material all dated to the Romano-British period, and the sequence indicates that the site was a shrine in use over a considerable time-span (Stanford, 1974).

The assumption has been that this was an isolated feature, representing occasional visits to the site by a displaced population. The archaeological survey carried out across the Croft estate included a detailed study of the fort (Ray and Hoverd, ibid.). As a result, two further locations with such shrine sites were noted. One of these had a remarkable row of ten or more structures arranged in a line - one feature among which produced calcined bone and another Romano-British tile and mortar.

What this indicates is not just a phenomenon like the alleged "pagan revival" that led to hillforts like Maiden Castle in Dorset having shrines placed inside them. Rather, this may represent a wholesale "sacrilisation" of a major Iron Age centre.

© Dr. Keith Ray, 2004


Haselgrove, C. (1997), "Iron Age brooch deposition and chronology", in Gwilt, A. and Haselgrove, C. (eds.), Reconstructing Iron Age Societies: New approaches to the British Iron Age, 51-72. Oxford: Oxbow Monograph 71.

Jackson, R. (2000), The Roman Settlement at Ariconium, near Weston-under-Penyard, Herefordshire: an assessment and synthesis of the evidence. Archaeological Service, Worcestershire County Council, Report 833.

Mawer, (1995),

O'Donnell, J. (1986), "Two Celtic Heads", Transactions of the Woolhope Naturalists' Field Club 45, 501.

Painter, K.S. (1967), "A Roman Stone Relief from Staunton-on-Arrow", Transactions of the Woolhope Naturalists' Field Club 39, 152-3.

Ray, K. (2001), "Archaeology and the Three Early Churches of Herefordshire", in Malpas, A., Butler, J., Davis, A., Davis, S., Malpas, T. and Samson, C. (eds.), The Early Church in Herefordshire, 99-148. Leominster. 

Ray, K. and Hoverd, T. (2003), Croft Castle Estate: An Archaeological Survey, 2001-2. Herefordshire Archaeology Report 49.

Shoesmith, R. (1980), "The Roman Buildings at New Weir, Herefordshire", Transactions of the Woolhope Naturalists' Field Club 43, 134-54.

Stanford, S.C. (1974), Croft Ambrey. Luston, Leominster: privately published.

Walters, H.B. (1908), "Romano-British Herefordshire", in Page, W. (ed.), The Victoria History of the County of Hereford, Vol. I, 167-199.