Friday, February 1, 2008

The Roman Temple of Nettleton Shrub

Old blog brought forward July 2006

The little Bybrook that still flows through this valley

The roman temple of Nettleton Scrubb, to be found by the side of the old Fosse Way.
As always intrigued by the religious buildings that pattern our history, curiosity made me seek out Wedlake's book of Priestley's excavation of this site in the 1930s and also the 1970s . The excavation was large and uncovered three stylistically different types of temples over the time period, from probably 46 AD to the withdrawal in the beginning of the 5th century.
Let us first set the scene, the buildings were probably set up at the same time as the Fosse Way, and there is slight evidence of an earlier native shrine - Dobunnic coins have been found. There was also by the way, two prehistoric axes found in the ditches, and Lugbury longbarrow is not too far away.
So here we have the tramp of the conquering romans over the defeated local tribes, did they surrender willingly? perhaps not for there is evidence of a burnt level in the first circular temple. Subjugation comes hard and there must have been bitter feelings as the romans took over control of lands and shrines. This period as seen from the eyes of the natives can only be conjectured and imagined, but Bath which is not too far away was probably a central large Imperial estate, the many villas only coming at a much later date as hostility eased but perhaps lay simmering under the surface.
How land was apportioned or whether local people were used as slaves we cannot know, but there was a great deal of industrialisation in this part of the West country, Camerton was the source of coal for the "eternal fire" that burnt in the temple at Bath, and of course for fuelling the industrialised processing of lead from the Mendips, and later pewter making was to be found at Camerton, Lansdown and also at Nettleton Scrubb. The following photograph shows a mould for pewter making which is on display at the Roman Baths.

Pewter mould at Roman Museum Bath

There is a general plan of excavations 1938-1947 and 1956-1970 from the Priestley dig, and if the photos are to be believed many of the walls still stood at 6 foot when uncovered, but quarrying of the rock and lime burning kilns bit into some of the remains. It is a beautiful plan drawing which probably belies the difficulty of trying to reconstruct the different buildings. The shrine complex was to the west of the Fosse Way, on the other side of the road to the east stood a triangulated three ditch and bank 1st C Ad camp,

Slight banks adjacent to Fosse Way

though an editorial note says that it is interpreted as an enclosure. Cemetery A is indicated here plus 3 buildings. A road crosses from this camp heading straight to the shrine enclosure, the modern Bath/Cirencester lane bisects one corner of the camp. To return over the road to the complex of buildings that surround the shrine, one of which located down by the Northmead brook was a "strong house"....
The temple stood on a knoll overlooking the brook, and though the course of the brook has changed in modern time, it would have overlooked the brook with an entrance served by the road that came in from the east, and with a building to the north.. The whole small area of the shrine complex/settlement bounded by natural banks would have been about 600 feet square, .....

Its a beautiful little valley, fairly untouched by modern agricultural, and has become a conservation area. The slopes on either side of the brook are covered with short grasses and wildflowers, Wild flowers in the valley

and on the afternoon I was there dozens of butterflies. Walking along the path the brook is to the left, and you can also see the "canalized" effect of the old course that the romans must have engineered. Atop this bank, (and the path that you walk) would probably have been an old trackway that curves slightly round the valley. As in the following photo, the bank of the old river course can be seen curving to the right.

Looking back along the curve of the roman canal

You come to an old small wooden gate, here it is very boggy, the wildflowers (himalayan Balsam, meadowsweet, etc) grow tall and you have to cross a muddy patch, this must have been the spring marked on Wedlake's plan. Further on the path curves round over an old packhorse bridge and takes an uphill course, the brook is on your right hand side now, and there is a weir and small dam. Did not go much further than this, basically because I had no map (picked up the wrong one when I dumped the ironing and escaped the house!) but did notice that to the left there was another small gate. This would have led you to the fields atop the valley and site of the settlement behind the temple, I doubt if there is anything to be seen and it would have needed another couple of hours to conjecture what was what. Did find out another interesting fact back home, my husband, who used to teach archaeology, had in fact dug up here with Wedlake in the 1970s.

The following photo is looking east back to the modern lane/Fosse Way, and shows the high settlement ground where the first roman camp would have been, also small cemetery A, the track leading to the shrine would have come from here. It is also worth noting that the North Wraxall villa which is not too far afar, was subject to flooding over the period of its occupation, due to its low position, the Nettleton settlement fared better on high ground.

It also shows in the foreground, apart from the dog, a nettle topped bank probably the remains of an old roman building

And now to the gods.
The romans had a somewhat relaxed approach to the worship of gods, and were quite happy to twin their gods with local celtic gods. This of course happened at Bath - Minerva/Sulis. This is a simplified statement of a more complex issue, which revolves round the myths and beliefs round both celtic and roman gods. The attributes of different beliefs had to be melded into a shape or form that would have been recognisable by local native people and the different nationalities that made up the roman legions and governing class, that passed through on their way to Cirencester.The temple at Nettleton was dedicated to Apollo and he was twinned with Cunomaglus (the Hound Prince), this has been found on a dedicatory altar. Dogs were a part of the "special" animals and birds that are depicted in pagan religions. The dog in this case represents a healing power ( their saliva contains antiseptic) but they can also be found in a hunting role, and there is a sculpture of Diana and a hound at Nettleton,

they can also represent death as well. So at Nettleton they fulfil a threefold task. . Small votive dogs have also been found at the Lydney Temple overlooking the Severn Estuary.

A fragmentary part of statuary was found of Rosmerta and Mercury. Again there is a complex relationship to be read here. Rosmerta as a consort of Mercury probably represents a local celtic deity, but she could also be seen as the dominant goddess, because in irish celtic mythology the role of the female whether in healing or war was complex. She can also be found at Cirencester, in this instance with three hooded men (cucallati)? the myth of one wife/mother married to three brothers.(irish myth) Also the fertility of the female is represented in the fact that she can be found with a basket of food, echoing the three roman "matres" goddesses with their baskets/corncupias and playful dogs to be found at Bath and Cirencester. The iconography is representative of what people want, - food, healing and fertility, the fluidity of the gods reflect human expectations.

note; Rosmerta is also known as Maia, the May goddess or coming of spring maybe, Mercury can be found as a warrior, according to (Proinsias MacCana Celtic Mythology) Apollo can also be taken as a sun god as well as a healer and he states that Mercury and Lugh the Irish God are one - which would give some credence to the naming the Lugbury longbarrow, except perhaps that in Andrew and Dury Maps of 1773 the stones are called Lockstone. See also

There is a bronze face mask of Apollo, a rotund face with tight locks, it has the appearance of native work, and brings to mind the famous "celtic" head (sometimes called a Gorgon's head) on the shield of Minerva at Bath.

Note; on looking at the statuary, heads seem to have disappeared, it has been noted at Bath and at the Uley Shrine that the statues looked as if they had been decapitated, so whether it happened at Nettleton or not remains a mystery. The overthrow of roman temples around 367 AD may explain this.

Possible roman water wheel; On the east side of the Fosse Way, the Brookmead curves round from the modern bridge, having the same former roman "canalised" bank. During the storms of 1968 some large stones were exposed after the flood, and these were taken to be roman, though there is no direct evidence, except for some blue pennant roofing tile which was found in a channel, which was 1 ft 2 inches wide. After the storm a block of stone was found lying on its side where it had fallen from the ledge above. On its dressed face it had a small slot cut into it, and identical slot was found in a slot "in situ" built into the river bank, this proved to be a splayed intake.

There seems to be on higher ground an inspection platform for this waterwheel, the bottom stone step having been identified. The only datable evidence is the roofing tile to say that it was Roman, but there is no record in early maps of a medival water mill, and according to Wedlake, the use of such large blocks of stone in the wheel housing, and its position at the extreme end of the eastern side of the settlement shows that it was probably built on or about the same time as the octagonal podium, i.e.before 230 ad.

Notes from; The Shrine of Apollo at Nettleton W.J.Wedlake

The Silvanus Altar - upper part, 13x 16 inches with plain side. its dedication reads;

Relief of Diana? and Hound (Bristol Museum); 22 in. high 25in wide and 17 thick; Carving shows virtually complete figure of a hound, and part of the body and legs of a heavily draped female on the right; whilst to the left is a broad vertical frame or pilaster. Attractive rendering of the hound, powerfully built body and sinewy legs are seen from the fron and who seems to be thought of as seated on its haunches (see mongrel type dog at Pagans hill, Chew Stoke at a slightly higher level than on which the female figure stands. The dog wear a heavy collar, and its snout is raided vertically, turned towards the spectator as it gazes into the now vanished face of its human companion.... a photo of the Diana and Hound relief sculpture at the Roman Bath Museum can be found here;

taken from Prof.J.M. Toynbee.

Relief of Mercury and Rosmerta; Fragmentary and somewhat crudely carved may be the figure of these two. Headless female, wearing a long tunic and a cloak, Her right arm is horizontal and she holds a basket or cake. Male figure is badly worn right arm broken away, in his left hand seems to grasp a caduceus, maybe his right hand held a purse.

(to the god Apollo Cunomaglos Corotica, son(or daughter) of Iutus gladly and duly fulfilled his (her) vow.

two Dubonnic Coins and the fact that the shrine is a boundary one between the Dubonni and the Belgae.

This is an earlier blog about Nettleton and Jefferies 'Nails of Gold' or kingcups, still to be found at Nettleton;


  1. You do realize that I am going to have to read every single one of your posts - they are SO interesting. I'd not come across Cunomaglus before, but he could have very real links to some of the stranger animals in the Pictish repertoire, especially as the Hunt (possibly incorporating Diana) is very prominent on the most important high-status Class II stones. It is supposed to be analogous with hunting the soul . . .

  2. Hi, I also went searching recently for this site, and it sounds like I took the same route as you, but I think the Cunomaglus Temple was on the south side of the brook, and the footpath is on the North. I've just ordered The book you mentioned so hopefully the next time I visit I will have a better idea exactly where to look! please could you let me know if you ever found the site?