Many years ago, I was an archaeologist. I spent one summer living in a tent in the middle of Northamptonshire, excavating a Roman palace. After many university digs and surveys, this was my first serious archaeological site. It was a huge excavation and was once a massive Roman farm estate, located right in the centre of the wheat production area of Roman Britain. The owner would have been a business “magnate”, as opposed to a farmer. The estate was run by a management system with managers and slaves. The owner was making a lot of money from the business, which you could see in the remains of the buildings. The main villa was lavish with incredible wall paintings, mosaics, underfloor heating and a bath complex. At the time we called it a palace, although it is more correct to call it an extensive villa.
I excavated some amazing stuff, including collapsed walls, the main hall and even half a skeleton. One feature I worked on was a hypocaust system in a small extended room attached to the west side of the villa. The system was of flues constructed into the building foundations. The hot air from a furnace would be drawn through these flues to heat the rooms.
The walls of the flues were shored up with stone that was re-used from somewhere else. You could tell that quite easily, as it was made up of fine and quite expensive relief sculpture. It was not normal practice to use such architectural fragments and sculpture to construct unseen walls and foundations. There was an image of Minerva, a barbarian head under a horse’s hoof and half a head of a pagan water god. The barbarian head, which would have been part of a much larger scene, is not an uncommon image from imperial Rome, probably portraying a battle and how civilisation conquers the uncivilised. Minerva too is not uncommon, being the Roman goddess of wisdom, strategic warfare, the arts and trade. Quite a wide portfolio, that ensures a good number of followers. The interpretation of the remains at the time was that these pieces came from a previous pagan temple or funerary structures, which were pulled down and made into a later building after the Christianisation of the Empire. This happened in the AD 360s onwards. It could have been a religious or an event related to the wider Roman economy. We don’t know. What is sure is that this expensive sculpture was cut-up, re-used and buried out of site. Someone certainly didn’t want the pagan imagery on display or even seen.
The pagan water god is intriguing. As with the others, the sculpture had been cut to fit into the hypocaust walls. Half its head is missing, but you can make out the left eye, forehead and top of the nose. He has a long flowing beard and moustache that surely represents the current of a river and the river weeds as they are drawn within the flow. I took photographs of the sculpture as we were digging, but also made the effort to get into the finds hut to take more photographs. It was very exciting. I am fond of these photographs and occasionally leaf through them. I call the pagan water god, Water God.
Romans and gods
The Romans were pagan. They believed in multiple gods and so accepted gods unbeknown to them, from other cultures. It may well not be unusual to find a local pagan god being celebrated alongside more mainstream gods, such as Minerva and Water God.
I think Water God was important to the locals and the estate owners. The local area would have had a strong relationship with water, the farm being located within the Nene Valley. The River Nene ran up to the Wash, which would have been a base for international connections via sea travel. This was a strategic point for Roman Britain and not far along the coast, just to the east of present-day Brancaster was Branodunum, a fort that protected the Wash area. In more peaceful times, Branodunum served as a port, especially for the larger towns such as York and Lincoln.
River travel was far safer and more efficient than roads. The Romans were famous for road building and Ermine Street, a main Roman route which ran from London to Lincoln and York, is not far away. If you were travelling to Londinium, Eboracum or Lindum Colonia, then maybe it would have been more straightforward to take the road. But if you were transporting goods or travelling to Gaul or the Mediterranean, then travelling by boat would be more appealing.
I am going to make a logical jump here without firm evidence to back me up. The estate was producing large quantities of wheat, for the local market and for the wider Roman economy. The trade of wheat, contacts with the Roman world, travel and imports would have been dependent upon the River Nene, which ran not very far away from the villa and farm complex. The estate would have been reliant upon this trade network.
The River Nene would also have been an important water supply for the estate and crops. A local water god would have been an ideal deity to worship. Who else would ensure the river supplied you with enough water for your crops without breaking its banks and destroying them? As well as that he would surely bringing favour to your trade, enabling you to transport and sell the produce across the Empire. Water God would bring you wealth, power and happiness.
The Iron Age and water
If we go a bit further with supposition, perhaps this farm estate owner was Romano-British and descended from Pre-Roman Iron Age families. Water God could have had deeper roots in the local area and been passed down through the generations. There were Iron Age farms in the area well before the Roman invasion.
The Iron Age is famed for its connection with water. We think bodies of water were the route to the other world for the Iron Age populations. Many votive offerings dating from the Iron Age have been hauled out of rivers, such as swords, helmets and shields. All expensive and elite items. We think they were offerings to the gods, or perhaps ancestors. Human remains have also been found in the context of water, skulls found in wells for example. In northern European bogs people were ritually killed and deposited in the mixture of water and decomposing vegetation. Bog water is brown from that decomposing matter within it and you cannot see through it as you would a pond or a lake. Imagine how the Iron Age peoples would watch their ancestors or treasured belongings literally disappeared out of sight and into the unknown as they sank slowly down into the bog.
It is appealing to link Water God with the local area, its topography and people. Was he was continuously believed in and worshiped to over centuries, perhaps millennia, until the onset of Christianity? I am using my imagination a lot here. There is no evidence to back this up and I would need a lot of time to look into the prehistory of the Nene Valley, its deities, trade and peoples to back any of this up.
Perhaps I have it completely wrong. The relief sculpture may have been from something larger and we are only seeing one piece in isolation. Say the owner of the estate who commissioned the sculpture was not British as all, but a Roman business man and ex-soldier. Could the three fragments of relief sculpture come from the same piece telling the story of this man’s exploits and glories within the Roman Empire, or stories of the Roman Empire. A very similar god appears in column of Marcus Aurelius’s column in Rome. It depicts the story of a rain god, answering a prayer from the emperor, and rescues Roman troops from a terrible storm. Telling a story in such a way doesn’t sit easy with me though. The scale of Water God, Minerva and the Barbarian and the potential scale of the buildings they came from does not allow much space for such a story to be told, as in the way of Marcus’s column.
Water God’s Face
Last year I gave a talk on archaeology to a Year 3 school group, who were studying the Romans. I dug out my pictures and digitised some for the presentation. Looking at the digital version of Water God and his upside down half face, it suddenly occurred to me, “if I make a copy, flip it, I can create a mirror image. I could then stick the two Water Gods together, and surely, I would have a complete, composite Water God. This would be the first time I would see his face in 30 years. In fact, I could even be the first to see him for say, 2700 years. I did it. Here he is:
On completing this rather crude reconstruction, I realised that I am missing some of the middle features of Water God’s face, in particular, the nose and central mouth area. If I line up the image completely, it looks too cramped, too squashed. I’ve tried to position them proportionately, but it is still unsatisfying. I am not disappointed. Much in archaeology is out of reach, and perhaps my archaeological training has allowed me to deal with and embrace ambiguity. There isn’t a definitive answer for Water God, Minerva or the barbarian head. What I am sure about is that the meaning behind the sculpture was so important that someone had them carved and put on display at a great cost. This was a huge investment. We also know that when Christianity arrived and took a hold, someone wanted them out of the way and out of sight. It is at that point that the meaning and belief behind Water God was lost.
Stanwick Roman Villa
The Roman Villa was excavated prior to gravel extraction. That extraction has now finished and in its place is wonderful countryside attraction with nature reserves and heritage trails. Do visit.
With thanks to Dr Simon Elliot for a chat about Roman Britain. @SimonElliott20