A new goddess for Roman Britain

Published: 17 years ago Author:

A fascinating new Roman temple treasure has been discovered near Baldock in Hertfordshire. Found by a metal-detectorist in September 2002, it comprises 26 gold and silver objects, including gold jewellery, a silver figurine and votive plaques of silver alloy and gold. Aware of the importance of his discovery the finder immediately contacted a local archaeologist, who arrived at the site shortly after  the removal of the last pieces of the hoard.
The finder's prompt and responsible action permitted the archaeologist to establish and record the precise circumstances of the find, to help to ensure the retrieval of all remaining fragments of the hoard and to initiate the Potential Treasure process: the district coroner was notified; the find was taken to the British Museum for report and scientific analysis; and on 20 March 2003, the hoard was declared Treasure at a Coroner's inquest.

The Baldock Hoard

Meanwhile, a highly-successful, focused programme of fieldwork has shed valuable light on the context of the find. From the finder's account it would appear that the hoard had been placed in the ground in a compact and ordered manner. The first object he located was the silver figurine which lay on top of the items of gold jewellery and two silver model arms. Beneath those were the closely-stacked gold plaques and under them the silver alloy plaques. No trace of any containers was found.

The silver figurine, almost 15 centimetres high, is of hollow construction and was evidently of good quality, but it has suffered badly from corrosion and damage, especially on the front. It shows a standing woman dressed in a full-length garment, her left shoulder bare and her left arm supporting a fold of drapery.
Her hair is parted on  the crown and formed into a bun on the nape of the neck, but her arms, feet and face are lacking, and no distinctive attribute survives to identify her as a particular deity. Never the less, there is good reason to believe that the image was intended to represent a goddess named Senua.

The clasp from the hoard


What is the evidence?

Well, it comes both from a study of the hoard's votive plaques and from the fieldwork. There are 19 plaques - 12 of silver alloy (badly corroded, brittle and fragmentary) and seven of gold - of a type known from sites in Roman Britain and elsewhere in the Roman Empire. They are made from very thin sheet metal, with embossed and incised decoration, and were intended for dedication at a temple or shrine, to one or more gods or goddesses. Of the 19 plaques in the present hoard five are still stuck together, but of the remaining 14, 12 have an embossed image of a deity and all except one of those depict the goddess Minerva.

It was somewhat surprising, therefore, to discover that all five of those that had an inscribed text recording the deity to whom they had been dedicated named not Minerva but Senua. Furthermore, during the excavation of the hoard's context, a silver base for a figurine was found adjacent to the findspot. It is almost certainly the missing base for the silver figurine, and it too, is inscribed with the name of the goddess Senua. This goddess has not been encountered before, and she is a completely new  deity for Roman Britain and, indeed, the Roman Empire.

The combination of the name Senua with the image of Minerva would suggest the twinning of a local British deity with the popular Roman goddess of wisdom and the crafts. Minerva also had warlike protective powers and an association with healing and with springs, as at Bath, where twinned with Sulis, she controlled Roman Britain's only thermal spring. Senua might have been likened to Minerva for any one, or more, of these perceived powers, and it remains to be seen whether the results of fieldwork will provide any further clues to her identity.

The 3rd or 4th century plaques.

Meanwhile, the inscriptions on the plaques reveal the names of the worshippers: Cariatia (or cariatus), Celsus, Firmanus, Lucilia. Two complete inscriptions record the same vow:

Servandus Hispani willingly fulfilled his vow to the goddess Se(nua)

Votive objects - gifts to a deity in return for favours requested or already granted - took many forms, and it is very probable that the small group of gold jewellery, like the plaques, figurine and model arms, had been dedicated to the goddess Senua.

There are two large circular brooches with coloured glass settings, a neck ornament comprising a pair of small enamelled discs linked by a gold chain, and most impressive of all, a large oval clasp with fine gold ornament and a carnelian gemstone engraved with the figure of a standing lion, its paw resting on an ox skull.

Much work remains to be done on the hoard and on the investigation of its context, and it is likely that there will be new and significant revelations. For the present, although it is impossible to determine unequivocally the reason for its burial, we can date the hoard to the later 3rd or 4th century AD and we can suggest that it was connected to a temple or shrine of the goddess Senua.

This article was originally published in Issue 46 of the British Museum Friends magazine, Summer 2003. It was written by Ralph Jackson, department of Prehistory and Europe.

The hoard has recently featured in the new BBC documentary series, "Hidden Treasure", which screened its first episode on Tuesday 2nd September (BBC2).

  The hoard is of national importance, and has been acquired by the British Museum. Its purchase was generously funded by the British Museum Friends and the National Art Collections Funds (Art Fund).

It will be included in the forthcoming exhibition at the British Museum.Buried Treasure: Finding Our Past opening 21st November 2003.T his hoard of temple treasure is now on display in the British Museum's Weston Gallery (No 49 case 20.)

Contact: Ralph Jackson

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