Skip to main content
Read page text

Page Text


fine series of over 200 Belgic coins was discovered which suggest that, before the temple was built, the site was already one of the most important Celtic cult centres in the whole of southern Britain.

ROMAN TEMPLE I N the Antiquaries Journal for 1928 there appeared a paper which has since become a classic. It was entitled 'A Romano-Celtic Temple near Harlow, Essex and a Note on the Type' by R. E. M. Wheeler D.Litt, F.S.A. The note was in fact a catalogue of all the known temples of the double square Celtic type, and Sir Mortimer brilliantly established that the distribution was limited to the Celtic areas; he therefore pro­ posed that they should be called 'Romano-Celtic ' rathe r tha n 'Romano-Gallic', and this name has stuck ever since. The actual temple at Harlow which provided the excuse for the note was not excavated by Sir Mortimer but by Mr. Miller Christy, a local antiquarian, who unfortunately died with the work unfinished leaving few notes or records behind him. Sir Mortimer, therefore, went down to the site for a day and recorded what he could see, and limited himself to opening a single trench. The resulting paper was a truly virtuoso performance for a single day's fieldwork.

The temple at Harlow was situated on the top of a low gravel hill, that rises about 20 ft. above the surrounding flood plain of the river Stort. In Sir Mortimer's time the foot of the hill was still surrounded by the remains of a ditch which he suggested might go back to Celtic times and form the boundary of the temenos, the sacred hill on which the temple stood. The area of the whole amounted to about 10 acres, and at one end there was a depression, thought to be a sacred pool or theatre; this has since been proved by excavation to be a natural geological feature.

Recent excavations by Dr. Norman E. France, Miss Betty Gobel and the West Essex Archaeological Group have considerably enlarged the picture painted by Sir Mortimer. In the first place, by extending the area of excavation, they showed that the temple had considerable ancillary buildings. Secondly, by establishing the stratigraphy of the whole site, they have shown that instead of a single period structure of the late 3rd and 4th century there is, in fact, a long range of three different building periods, and that the temple stood from the 1st century to the early 4th century. And finally, perhaps most important of all, a

A major religious centre in the Iron Age

The first trace of activity of a religious nature on the hilltop comes in the form of five Bronze Age burials. These were cremations in overhanging-rim urns of a type dated to between 1400 and 1000 B.C., all of which had been broken in antiquity. But it is not until late in the Iron Age that we get evidence that the site had become a major religious centre. This evidence largely consists of some 205 coins and over 50 brooches; the mint condition of the majority of the finds suggests that they had been deliberately buried as offerings to the gods. The pre-temple stratigraphy is clearly defined as a layer of brown loam representing the original hill surface in which these offerings were deposited. It is tempting, though so far unproven, to suggest that this brown loam was leaf mould, and that the hilltop was an oak grove in which the priests celebrated their rites.

The coins can be divided into three different categories. The earliest were on top of the hill, under the floor of the later temple: these were all of gold, 13 in all. (There may have been a fourteenth, for a very similar gold coin suddenly appeared in a private collection and it may have been stolen from the site.) Two of these (Gallo-Belgic Type E) were imported from the Continent about 50 B.C., whilst the rest of them were all British types and are currently dated to around 40 B.C. The second group consisted of 33 bronze coins of Tasciovanus, most of which were found in the area to the south-west of the site, around the gully and post-holes marked on the plan overleaf; these date to around 0. Finally the third group consists mostly of coins of Cunobelin, the son of Tasciovanus, and they continue right up to the time of the Roman Conquest; they formed by far the greater quantity and were found scattered all over the southern half of the site. They were not all of Cunobelin himself. Coins from as far afield as the Coritani of Leicestershire and the Durotriges of Dorset suggest that, by this time, this sacred place was drawing pilgrims from all over southern Britain.

The coins, which are being discussed by Mr. Derek Allen in a series of articles in the British


My Bookmarks

Skip to main content