Shrines and temples

Shrines could be defined as relatively small-scale structures and features generally recorded on rural sites, and possibly the settings for relatively modest and informal ritualised practices; whereas temples refer to structures forming part of Greco-Roman and Romano-Celtic architectural traditions, and perhaps also more formalised ritual practices. There are considerable theoretical and methodological difficulties in recognising relatively ambiguous archaeological features as shrines, however, and/or attributing a specifically ritual function to them (Smith et al. 2018: 121). In some cases, this has been in terms of what features are not rather than more positive identifications. Within South Yorkshire there are several unusual or enigmatic features and sites that may suggest ritualised practices were taking place.

Near Enclosure 8 at Redhouse Farm, Adwick-le-Street, there was a square structure defined by beam slots c. 2.1m across, opposite an early enclosure entrance and beside a trackway (Upson-Smith 2006: 6). It is similar in plan to structures from the hillforts at Danebury and South Cadbury interpreted as shrines (Downes 1997: 148-150; Wait 1985: 166-167); and other Iron Age and Romano-British features at Maiden Castle, Uley and Chelmsford (Drury 1980: 45-50, fig. 3.2). Although the Redhouse Farm structure could conceivably be a small rural shrine (Chadwick 2008a: 663-4, app. F), no finds were recovered and thus there is no archaeological evidence to indicate a ritual function. It was only four metres away from a possible four-poster granary, so may simply have been an ancillary storage feature.

At Topham Farm, Sykehouse, a continuous circular gully 12m in diameter contained burnt animal bone and fired clay or briquetage; and produced a radiocarbon date of 60 BC–AD 180. This was replaced by another unbroken ring gully only 5.5m across that contained two shallow rounded postholes within it and which produced a similar date. The ring gullies do not seem to have been roundhouses and might have been small shrines (Roberts 2003: 29-30). The earlier structure contained 40% of all the Romano-British pottery from the entire site, including several near complete vessels. These two features might alternatively have been haystack stands or fodder ricks, though this does not preclude their use for more ritualised deposition.

There appears to have been a notable lack of identifiable Romano-Celtic style temples in northern England and this was especially true of the north-east, even in areas such as East Yorkshire that had more villas than South Yorkshire (Smith et al. 2018: 135). This may indicate that temple distributions were not simply mirroring the extent of Roman-style architecture and more ‘Romanised’ lifestyles; but might suggest deeper differences in underlying traditions and understandings of sacred space and ritualised practices from those more prevalent in southern England. For instance, regional and local ideas concerning ritualised areas, and practices where any profane and sacred divides were regarded as more fluid and protean, might have been more important than ‘formal’ religious spaces. The Roman stone altars found at Doncaster, Templeborough and possibly at Staincross Common (see above) are the most obvious manifestations of ‘formal’ Roman religious practices.

On the floodplain of the River Idle near Bawtry, archaeological investigation ahead of work by the Environment Agency revealed the tops of several dressed stone columns, along with a large artefactual assemblage including 72 Roman coins, iron objects, a copper-alloy fibula, and rolled lead sheets that might be prayers, votives or ‘curse tablets’ – phylacteries and defixiones (Berg and Major 2006: 5; Roberts, Deegan and Berg 2010: 77). The very large ceramic assemblage contained a high proportion of bowls, dishes and beakers with large numbers of vessels sooted and burnt; whilst included small flanged vessels with internal scorching suggest their use as tazze or incense burners. This may well be the location of a Romano-Celtic temple site therefore, and it is potentially one of the most significant Romano-British sites ever discovered in South Yorkshire and the wider region.

A geophysical survey was undertaken across the site at Bawtry Carr, but much of the area did not appear to have significant buried remains (Harrison and Webb 2006). Only magnetometry was used, however, and not soil resistance survey or Ground Penetrating Radar (GPR) that might have better detected stone walls and other remains sealed beneath layers of alluvium. In the surrounding area, eight coins of Gallienus to Diocletian (AD 253-304) were found a little way from the site around 1840 (Magilton 1977: 13), and a gold Iron Age stater also found at Bawtry might indicate some earlier Iron Age significance to this locale. The association with rivers is a feature of other Iron Age and Romano-British temple sites such as Redhill in Nottinghamshire, and of some coin hoards and metalwork deposits (Blagg 1986; Bland et al. forthcoming; Palfreyman and Ebbins 2003). Further archaeological work is urgently required at this location, which in the short-term by the depredations of illegal metal-detectorists and in the long-term is threatened by flooding and river erosion as a result of climate change (see below).

Research questions

  • How can we pursue further research into the possible locations of shrines or temples, and the practices undertaken there? Can we define ‘typical’ topographic locations for known ceremonial sites in Iron Age and Roman Britain, and use such data to prospect for more?
  • Can we investigate aspects of cosmology or other beliefs by studying the arrangements of enclosures, the positions of their entrances, and artefact distributions?

Priorities and implementation

  • Deegan (2007) identified several possible Iron Age or Romano-British temple or shrine sites in West Yorkshire and South Yorkshire on aerial photographs – one may be located near Ravensfield (Roberts, Deegan and Berg 2010: 35). Geophysical survey utilising caesium magnetometry, soil resistance survey and GPR, gridded metal detecting and targeted excavation to try and determine the age and character of such sites would all be very useful;
  • Any structures suspected of being shrines on rural settlement sites should be excavated in detail and intensively sampled to try and elucidate their function. Detailed plotting of artefact distributions would be essential;
  • At Bawtry Carr, preservation in situ is simply not a viable long-term option, due not only to the very likely possibility of increased flooding and fluvial erosion in the future driven by climate change (see below), but also the grave threat from illegal detecting and looting. Well-funded research-led excavation would be the best solution for this potentially very exciting site, and this would be an ideal candidate for a research-led excavation project jointly undertaken by Historic England, a commercial field unit, and staff and students from a university archaeology department.