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Archaeology and Early History

PAGANISM IN EARLY ROMAN TIMES

SPRINGHEAD AND THE CULT OF SOURCE

Many of the native Celtic pagan beliefs continued into Roman times. The roadside settlement of Springhead near Dartford was an important centre of pagan religion and pagan worship based on the Cult of Source. This cult was associated with healing and fertility and its temples and shrines were usually sited near a spring, the source of a river or stream. At the centre of Springhead were at least six Romano-Celtic temples within a walled compound. Two main temples seem to have replaced the others some time between 120-150 A.D. All of the temples were derelict by the middle of the fourth century.

Evidence retrieved from Springhead suggests that people visited the site to obtain a cure for diseases and ill-health. Small bronze models of a human arm, hand and thumb have been found at Springhead. These were probably offered to the spirits of the springs in the hope that the diseased limb would be healed. Other pagan objects excavated at Springhead include a bone figure of Genius Cucullatus, a god of riches and prosperity dressed in a hooded cloak, and a pipe-clay figure of Venus. Votive objects retrieved from other sites include coins, tools, pots, jewellery, figurines of gods and goddesses and pieces of inscribed lead begging favours from a particular god or goddess.

 

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Lullingstone wall painting

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PAGANISM AT LULLINGSTONE ROMAN VILLA

The Romans introduced their own gods which became the subject for worship. Venus was their fertility goddess. The Celtic deities of healing (Sulis, Nodens or Coventina) were replaced by Minerva and Apollo. Jupiter and Minerva played a leading role as chief Roman gods. Diana, Vulcan, Hercules and Mars were deities associated with aggression. The Cult of Mercury was also important. Mercury was the patron of merchants, traders, travel, trade and crafts. Successive Roman emperors were also given the status of gods as part of the Imperial Cult.

The Romans were tolerant of most faiths, so long as they did not threaten the political and social values of the Empire. Exotic eastern mystery cults were introduced to Britain by soldiers and foreign tradesmen.

 

   Lullingstone mosaic
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Pagan worship continued locally and is well represented by the finds at Lullingstone villa in the Darent Valley. The villa had a separate circular shrine building where a cult image was venerated, as well as a temple-mausoleum complete with wall paintings. In the second century A.D. a bath house was added to the villa complete with a shrine dedicated to water nymphs. The splendid mosaics at Lullingstone villa feature a scene from pagan mythology; that of the hero Bellerophon on the winged horse Pegasus slaying the monster Chimaera. This scene illustrates the triumph of good over evil. Another section of the mosaic portrays a lively depiction of the Rape of Europa.

 

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THE TEMPLE MAUSOLEUM AT LULLINGSTONE

A pagan temple-mausoleum was constructed at Lullingstone Roman Villa c. A.D. 300 upon a purpose-built terrace behind the main villa complex. This mausoleum was designed for the burial of a young man and a young woman in their early twenties. A temple was erected above the mausoleum for the performance of rituals associated with their memory. A cult room in the mausoleum provided the focus for the burials. The bodies were placed beneath the floor of the cult room in lead coffins decorated with embossed scallop shells; grave goods accompanied each burial. Coffins and grave goods were enclosed in a heavy wooden sarcophagus buried under twelve alternate layers of chalk and gravel.

Grave goods accompanying the bodies consisted of objects needed by two persons in the after-life, two flagons, four glass bottles, two glass bowls, two knives and two spoons. On the lid of the coffin that enclosed the body of the young man were the remains of a square gaming board with a complete set of thirty glass gaming pieces, fifteen white and fifteen red-brown, all decorated with spots of coloured glass. The type of game played is not known but may have been a form of backgammon.

Next topic: The arrival of Christianity in Roman Britain

 

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