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History: the goddess of Ashwell

PUBLISHED: 15:14 10 August 2018 | UPDATED: 15:15 10 August 2018

The restored figurine of Dea Senuna (photo: The Trustees of the British Museum)

The restored figurine of Dea Senuna (photo: The Trustees of the British Museum)

The Trustees of the British Museum

Revealed in a new publication by the British Museum is the story of a rich Romano-British hoard that opened a door to a hidden goddess and a major site of pilgrimage in Ashwell

On a Sunday morning in September 2002 metal detectorist Alan Meek and fellow members of the North Hertfordshire Charity Detector Group were scanning an unremarkable stubble field to the south of the pretty village of Ashwell in North Herts. Little did they know that what lay beneath would prove to be one of the rarest and most significant finds, not just in Britain, but in the Roman world.

Investigating the ‘beep’ of something metallic beneath the harvested field, the team would eventually unearth 27 gold and silver objects. This was significant in its own right, but it was a fragmented figurine which would capture the attention of academics and the public. ‘She lay on top of the hoard,’ explains Gilbert Burleigh of the North Hertfordshire Archaeological Society, ‘but she was almost discarded as rubbish.

‘Alan thought it was a bit of tin foil and put it on one side and filled the hole in again without realising that there was all this other stuff underneath. He came back later to tidy the “tin foil” away, ran his machine over the hole, and got this massive signal.’

After more excavation, gold and silver was soon shining in the late summer sunshine. Realising it was an important find, the amateur team called Gilbert, who raced at once to the site. He confirmed it was a significant temple treasure hoard.

Gem-incrusted gold jewellery decorated with filigree wire that included an oval gem gold clasp intricately engraved with a lion standing over an ox skull (photo: The Trustees of the British Museum)Gem-incrusted gold jewellery decorated with filigree wire that included an oval gem gold clasp intricately engraved with a lion standing over an ox skull (photo: The Trustees of the British Museum)

‘It was a bright sunny day and I could see the plaques had written inscriptions on them,’ Gilbert says. ‘It was very exciting.’

The finds were legally recorded as ‘treasure’ under the Portable Antiquities Scheme. The British Museum funded a £35,000 reward, which was split between Alan, the landowner and three local charities.

Gilbert describes the discovery as a ‘once in several lifetimes find’. He adds, ‘Treasure hoards of this nature are very rare things and the Ashwell hoard is the first of its kind excavated for well over 200 years.’

A similar but smaller Roman period temple hoard of silver was found at Barkway in Herts back in 1743 and a badly damaged one at Stony Stratford, Bucks, in 1789.

2006 fieldwork showing excavation of the central clay altar platform on the right. The remains of the chalk rubble floored shrine building is left foreground (photo: Gilbert Burleigh)2006 fieldwork showing excavation of the central clay altar platform on the right. The remains of the chalk rubble floored shrine building is left foreground (photo: Gilbert Burleigh)

The Ashwell treasure included beautiful gold and silver plaques – thin decorative sheets – many inscribed with votive dedications, and a suite of gem-incrusted gold jewellery decorated with filigree wire that included an oval gem gold clasp intricately engraved with a lion standing over an ox skull. These are pieces rarely found outside Rome. And most importantly, when pieced back together, the 15cm high silver figurine of a standing woman, her left shoulder bare and her left arm supporting a fold of drapery. In an outstretched hand she holds a disc, in the other, ears of corn.

The initially soil-encrusted contents were taken to the British Museum and painstakingly cleaned and examined. The iconography on many of the plaques showed an image of the goddess Minerva with a spear, shield and owl, but it was only when the inscriptions were magnified that they revealed an unknown name, Senuna, or a shortened version, Senua.

The hoard triggered an archaeological excavation of the Ashwell site over four seasons. Perhaps the gods played a part, as on the first day of full excavation in 2003 a silver pedestal base to the figurine was found. It would unlock the hoard’s meaning.

‘It was a key find and better still inscribed with the name Senuna, a previously unknown Romano-British goddess whose identity had lay buried for more than 1,600 years,’ explains Gilbert.

The silver plaques in the hoard (photo: The Trustees of the British Museum)The silver plaques in the hoard (photo: The Trustees of the British Museum)

In connecting the figurine with the dedicatory vow inscribed on its base: ‘to the goddess Senuna from Flavia Cunoris, who fulfils her vow willingly and deservedly’, the archaeologists were able to confirm her immortal identity. Ralph Jackson, Roman curator at the British Museum at the time, described the moment they realised she was an unknown goddess as ‘like seeing her reborn before my eyes’.

So who was Senuna? She is thought to be a native Celtic goddess who was adopted and Romanised, Gilbert explains.

‘The goddess to whom they made their vows clearly had British origins. But the votive plaques indicated that Senuna’s powers and characteristics were similar to those of the goddess Minerva. She is also clearly equated with the Roman classical goddess Fortuna – goddess of fortune and fertility. If you found the figurine without the inscription on the pedestal base, you would say it was Fortuna.’

Many of the offerings to the goddess were dedications which included the name of their votary. So in Ashwell in the late third or early fourth century were Cariatus, Celsus and Lucilia, perhaps pilgrims who had visited this special site from Spain and even further afield.

Excavations by the North Herts Archaeological Society, Heritage Network, Stevenage Archaeology Group and volunteers yielded dramatic results and a bigger picture revealing what those who made the offerings may have seen. The hoard had been buried next to a large circular or polygonal feature, not a formal temple building as initially suspected, but a major unique open-air ritual site. Here it is thought feasting and religious festivals took place and where gifts were offered to the gods. Finds show it had a sacred use as far back as the Bronze Age.

It is likely there was a spring nearby and the religious activities were held around the river Rhee and a seasonal spring (a spring still rises up beside The Three Tuns in the village). ‘It was common for temples and shrines to be near a spring,’ says Gilbert. ‘The surrounding settlement, which has not been excavated, would have been a thriving community with temples, shops and guest accommodation.’

At the heart of the site was a ceremonial hollow, the origins of which were probably a spring. Here astonishing discoveries were found. ‘There was a central altar – a platform similar to a Greek temple altar with large ovens surrounding it where whole carcasses would be cooked,’ says Gilbert. ‘We found a pit of 5,000 oyster shells – it remains a mystery as to how they kept them fresh. On some occasions there must have been hundreds of people gathered.’

A road had been resurfaced 13 times over a period of around 400 years, and the remains of two small roofed buildings were discovered, believed to be shrines.

Equally striking were more religious offerings. ‘They were carefully chosen groups of objects positioned with care,’ Gilbert explains. ‘Some may have been discreetly deposited by individuals, others more ceremoniously dedicated, perhaps on the occasion of religious festivals.’

Artefacts included brooches, coins, pottery deliberately broken and metalwork bent or snapped in two. ‘This was a common occurrence,’ Gilbert says – offerings to the gods which they could use but which were no longer useful to people.’

There are competing theories as to why the gold and silver Senuna hoard was buried. One school of thought speculates that an event in the late third or early fourth century led to the priest in charge of the Senuna complex deciding during unsettled times that it was necessary to conceal some of the treasures. Perhaps choosing the most valuable offerings, he packed them carefully in a cloth bag with the silver statue of the goddess on top and as nightfall came deposited them carefully in the ground intending to come back to recover them, but the opportunity never came.

Gilbert believes it was less dramatic: ‘The votive plaques and jewellery would originally have been in a shrine or temple. I like to think it was done simply as an offering to Senuna at an important festival or event.’

We will probably never know the exact circumstances behind the burial of the rich Ashwell hoard. Perhaps the site will reveal more secrets in time, but for now the goddess Senuna remains an enigma.

The Ashwell hoard can be viewed at the British Museum’s Gallery 49: The Weston Gallery of Roman Britain.

Dea Senuna: Treasure, Cult and Ritual at Ashwell, Hertfordshire by Ralph Jackson and Gilbert Burleigh is published by the British Museum.

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