Wednesday 25 July 2012

In Search of London's Ancient Temples

In The History of the Kings of Britain (Historia Regum Britanniae, c.1136), Geoffrey of Monmouth tells us of two temples that existed in pre-Roman London; the Temple of Concord and the Temple of Apollo, but provides no clues as to their location. He also writes that Brutus the Trojan, the legendary founder of Britain, vowed to build a temple to the goddess Diana somewhere in his New Troy on the banks of the Thames.

Lud's Walls
The story of Brutus (Britto) was in existence in the 9th century (Historia Brittonum), he is the grandson, or great grandson, of Aeneas a hero of the Trojan War, one of the most important events in Greek mythology, documented in Homer's epic poems the Iliad and the Odyssey, scribed in the 8th century. We cannot accuse Geoffrey of inventing the tale of Brutus, but he certainly seems guilty of stretching the yarn. According to Geoffrey, King Lud later refortified the city walls and subsequently renamed the settlement as KaerLud. But, not for the first timeGeoffrey confuses his chronology, as these defences were not built until the late 2nd or early 3rd century AD with much of it surviving as late as the 18th and 19th centuries.

The Romans built the Wall around Londinium between 190 and 225 AD, some considerable time after the construction of the fort at Cripplegate. This was during the period of Severan's re-fortifications, which included Hadrian's Wall in the north. The landward wall must have been considered adequate for the defence for London with the river itself thought to be a suitable barrier on the southern front. During the late 3rd and the 4th centuries, the eastern and western ends of the landward wall were joined by a new wall that ran along the riverfront approximately on the line of modern Upper and Lower Thames Street.
London Wall, Tower Hill
In 1975 over 50 massive blocks of limestone, including a group of monumental sculptures, were found amongst the building material of the newly discovered 4th century riverside wall just to the east of Blackfriars. Most of these blocks had ornaments and figures in relief carving, some 45 had come from two large, richly decorated monuments, that has been reconstructed as a 25ft wide arch and a 20ft wide screen. Both of these monuments contained figures of deities with the arch having at least four full length figures including Minerva and Hercules. The screen had at least six full length figures including Vulcan, Minerva and Diana. The London Arch has been tentatively identified as the work of Romano-British masons and also dated to the Severan period, with the Screen dated more loosely to the 2nd or 3rd centuries. The arch is thought to have been a monumental entrance to religious precinct in the south western end of the city.

Massive sculptured blocks have also been observed in a stretch of wall during sewer excavations at the foot of Lambeth Hill in 1841. These huge stones contained within the building material of the wall included sculptured and ornamental mouldings portraying their use at some previous time in friezes and entablatures. Other decorative stone work has been found amongst the building material of the riverside wall, but significantly only in the western part at Blackfriars, which did not belong to the arch, screen or friezes, and undoubtedly came from temples and shrines, such as a relief of group of four mother-goddesses and two altars, each with a 3rd century inscription relating to the rebuilding of a temple, probably of Isis. 

In 1981 the massive foundation stones of an east-west and a north-south wall were found at Peter's Hill, now a notable pedestrian route leading from Upper Thames Street to St Paul's Cathedral since the construction of the Millennium Bridge, conjectured to be the foundations of a large temple. The implication of these finds is that a large area in the south-west of the walled city, south of the site of the modern St Paul's Cathedral, was a religious precinct, entered through the London Arch. A lack of domestic refuse in the archaeological record suggests the area was kept 'clean'. At sometime the priority changed and it was demolished with parts of the arches, screens and temples used as building material in the riverside wall at Blackfriars.

A Bronze Age Burial Ground
To the ancient Greeks the Trojan War was a historical event that had taken place in the 12th century BC putting the events firmly in the Bronze Age. Yet evidence for a pre-Roman settlement on the site of the City of London is slight, if at all; there was certainly Bronze Age activity within the area of the original Roman settlement of Londinium with evidence of votive offerings gathered from the river Thames and its tributaries revealing that this was once a sacred area, perhaps purposefully kept 'clean' and unsettled.

We find some Bronze Age barrows situated on the higher ground surrounding the site of Londinium. Barrows are situated south of the river at Wimbledon Common and at Richmond Park were the highest ground is called King Henry VIII's Mound, and thought to have been the site of an ancient burial. The Mound has a protected vista to St Paul's cathedral, ten miles distant at Ludgate Hill. At Greenwich Park overlooking the Thames is a Bronze Age barrow cemetery, re-used by the Saxons in the 6th century. Opposite Richmond Park, across the west bank of the Thames, a Bronze Age barrow was known at Teddington, which was excavated in 1854, the finds, including a fine Bronze Age dagger, now sadly lost.

To the north of the river at Parliament Hill on Hampstead Heath in Greater London, we find a significant mound thought to be a Bronze Age bowl barrow known as "Boudicca's Grave" which local legend claims is where the great Queen was buried after her Iceni warriors were defeated at Battle Bridge, an ancient crossing of the River Fleet. Just north of Regent's Park is Primrose Hill, a conical hill, over two hundred feet high, formerly known as Barrow Hill, and claimed to be an ancient burial site.  At Westminster on a bend in the Horseferry Road, we find Tothill Mound, the name denoting an old beacon hill or artificial mound, the highest spot on the flat, marshy region of Thorney Island, near the site of the modern Abbey.

Within the Square Mile of the City Walls evidence for Bronze Age barrows all but disappears, perhaps destroyed by 1st century Roman constructions. The higher ground of Cornhill and Ludgate Hill became the site of great Christian churches; St Peter's, the first Christian church in London, and St Paul's, respectively. Yet at Tower Hill we find the survival of one ancient tradition. Bryn Gwyn, the White Mound, the site of the Tower of London, is said to have been the burial site of Bran's Head.

However, the oldest structure yet found in London is a group of wooden posts, originally about the size of telegraph poles, found further upstream sticking out of the Thames mud near Vauxhall Bridge, visible in front of the MI6 building but only at low tide. These posts were found to be over 6,000 years old. Their usage unknown, the posts were promptly given a ritual interpretation with suggestions that they were part of a cult site, something like native North American totem poles. Perhaps the posts simply marked an ancient quayside. The Thames was the gateway into ancient Britain, and situated opposite the mouth of the Rhine, the gateway into Europe, an obvious trade route. It would appear that these sites along the Thames provided meeting places for trade and religious ceremonies, the occurrence indelibly marked on the landscape by a pit or a post. But nothing that could be considered a major settlement. Indeed, the area surrounding the City is somewhat reminiscent of the sacred landscape on Salisbury Plain, with the Stonehenge monument at the centre, surrounded by numerous barrows on the skyline which must have been an impressive sight in fresh white chalk. The only difference being the centre of the sacred London landscape was a major river deity instead of a stone monument.

Identification of Geoffrey's ancient temples has so far proved elusive; yet until the trowel of the archaeologist turns up some new evidence, continuity (Roman temples and shrines were built on existing indigenous sacred sites), and the Roman habit of religious syncretism, are perhaps our best hope of identifying these ancient places of worship.

London's First Temple?
London’s first civic centre was built by the Romans c.70 AD on the high ground to the east of the river Walbrook on a gravel ridge running across Cornhill. This replaced an earlier wooden structure, probably part of the very first Roman settlement built c.50 AD. This earlier wooden building may simply have been a store as burnt grain was found here, perhaps evidence of Boudicca's attack in 60 AD.

The stone building formed an enclosure, a Forum and Basilica complex. The basilica formed the north side and was where the local senate would have met, effectively Londinium's first town hall and law court. On the other three sides was The forum, or business centre, and contained a central market place. The first forum and basilica occupied a site of about 100m x 50m. Twenty years later in response to the demands of an expanding Londinium, the complex was to grow fourfold in a building project over the next thirty years. The new basilica was three storeys high, the largest north of the Alps. The western end stretching across Cornhill with the eastern portion now lying under the Victorian Leadenhall Market. Beneath the south-west corner are traces of a small rectangular building, part of the first forum and basilica complex, measuring around 18m x 10m, with a squarish apse at its northern end. This was thought to be small temple or shrine, possibly London's first. Was this religious building, dedicated to an unknown deity, erected on top of one of Geoffrey's pre-Roman temples?

Temple of Apollo
Geoffrey recalls the legend of King Bladud who attempted to fly but fell upon the Temple of Apollo in the city of Trinovantum. So Geoffrey's story goes that Baldud was an ingenious man, who taught necromancy (a form of magic involving communication with the deceased), but was killed “in pursuing his magical operations attempted to fly to the upper region of the air with wings which he had prepared and fell upon on the temple of Apollo in the city of Trinovantum, where he was dashed to pieces."

The site of  the modern Westminster Abbey at Thorney Island has long been suspected of being the site of  the Temple of Apollo, but there is absolutely no justification for this whatsoever. However, this has long been sacred ground with the present Abbey being built on the site of an earlier Late Saxon church which in turn replaced an earlier church which legend claims was consecrated by St Peter. But this is far too late to be one of Geoffrey's pre-Roman temples. However, there had certainly been a post-Roman episcopal see in London. Bede records a tradition that the first Saxon cathedral was built by bishop Mellitus in 604 AD in 'Lundenwic'. But this is too late and being a mile to the west of the old Roman city of Londinium is in the wrong place for Brutus's temple. Perhaps we should be looking elsewhere.

In his Historia Geoffrey describes how Bladud built Kaerbadus (modern Bath), and made the hot baths dedicated to the goddess Minerva, in whose temple the fires never went out nor consumed ashes. Minerva, the Roman goddess of healing and wisdom of great antiquity, sharing many attributes with the Greek Goddess Athena, her cult developed under Etruscan influence with Minerva joining Jupiter and Juno as part of the Capitoline triad. Geoffrey confuses his chronology again here, and not for the last time, as Minerva was unknown in Britain until the arrival of the Romans and her popularity with the military is attested by inscriptions from Segontium (Caernarfon, Gwynedd) to Camboglanna (Castlesteads, Cumbria) on Hadrian's Wall.

The Celts built the first shrine at the site of the hot springs which was dedicated to the goddess Sulis, a local goddess, virtually unknown outside of Bath, although she is identified with the Suleviae, a group of Celtic goddesses attested by over forty inscriptions in the ancient Celtic lands of Gaul, Britain and Galicia. The Romans identified Sulis with Minerva, which was consequently reflected in the name of the Roman temple there, constructed in 60-70 AD, which they called Aquae Sulis ("the waters of Sulis").

 Aquae Sulis Roman baths
Cursing in the Temple
Around 130 curse tablets (Defixiones) have been found at the temple of Aquae Sulis, at Bath, most concerned with theft. The curses, found throughout the Graeco-Roman world, were usually inscribed on lead tablets and occasionally other materials such as wooden writing tablets, papyri and stone, in which someone would ask the gods to do harm to others. The curses were typically scratched on very thin sheets of lead in small letters, rolled or folded, then either buried in the ground or included in graves or tombs, often they were thrown into wells or pools or nailed to the walls of temples.

In addition to Aquae Sulis, curse tablets have been found at many Romano-British temples, particularly in the west of the country: two from Somerset, Brean Down and Pagans Hill; Lydney and notably West Hill at Uley, both from Gloucestershire. The possible presence of a Neolithic ceremonial site at Uley may extend its history as a sacred place back into the third millennium BC.

Further afield, a curse tablet was found in debris of the northern half of the arena during excavations of the amphitheatre, south-west of the legionary fortress at Caerleon (Isca), Gwent by Sir Mortimer Wheeler in 1926. The lead tablet approximately 10 cm square, was pierced with two nail holes for attachment. The inscription reads: 'Lady Nemesis, I give thee a cloak and a pair of boots; let him who took them not redeem them [unless] with his own blood.'

This particular curse has been interpreted as being made by a gladiator or soldier, requesting the goddess arrange for the death or injury of the thief in return for the stolen possessions. The rectangular enclosure just outside the main entrance to the amphitheatre contained a shrine to Nemesis which perhaps would have been a more fitting place for the curse tablet, unless the thief was a gladiator who was to get his comeuppance in the arena. As the goddess of divine retribution, Nemesis was feared and revered. Along with Dike and Themis, goddesses associated with Justice, Nemesis was one of the assistants of Zeus, the king of the Olympian gods who was regarded as the founder of law and order.

Further dedications to Minerva appear at the site of Mithraeum at Segontium and at Camboglanna, the latter reading, "For the God Belatucader [in the] shrine of Minerva" found alongside altarstones to Mithras. Perhaps coincidence, or indications of a divine relationship, endorsed when the buried white marble heads of Minerva were found during excavations of the site of a temple in the valley of the Walbrook in 1954.

Copyright © 2012 Edward Watson

Next: The Temple of Mithras

Notes & References
Ralph Merrifield, London: City of the Romans, Batsford, 1983.
Martin Henig, Religion in Roman Britain, Routledge, 1995.
Lewis Thorpe, ed and trans.,The History of the Kings of Britain by Geoffrey of Monmouth, Penguin 1973.

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