Romano-Celtic temple 400m south of Dell's Farm


Heritage Category:
Scheduled Monument
List Entry Number:
Date first listed:


Ordnance survey map of Romano-Celtic temple 400m south of Dell's Farm
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The building or site itself may lie within the boundary of more than one authority.

Uttlesford (District Authority)
Great Chesterford
National Grid Reference:
TL 51414 43603

Reasons for Designation

Romano-Celtic temples were built to meet the spiritual needs of the communities they served by venerating the god or spirit considered to dwell in a particular place. The temple building was regarded as the treasure house of its deity and priests rather than as a congregational building and any religious activities, including private worship, communal gatherings, sanctuary and healing, took place outside. Romano-Celtic temples included the temple building and a surrounding sacred precinct or temenos which could be square, circular, rectangular or polygonal in ground plan. The temple building invariably faced due east and was the focus of the site, although it did not necessarily occupy the central position in the temenos. It comprised a cella, or inner temple chamber, an ambulatory or walkway around the cella, and sometimes annexes or antechambers. The buildings were constructed of a variety of materials, including stone, cob and timber, and walls were often plastered and painted both internally and externally. Some temenoi enclosed other buildings, often substantial and built in materials and styles similar to those of the temple; these are generally interpreted as priests' houses, shops or guest houses. Romano-Celtic temples were built and used throughout the Roman period from the mid first century AD to the late fourth/early fifth century AD, with individual examples being used for relatively long periods of time. They were widespread throughout southern and eastern England, although there are no examples in the far south west and they are rare nationally with only about 150 sites recorded in England. In view of their rarity and their importance in contributing to the complete picture of Roman religious practice, including its continuity from Iron Age practice, all Romano-Celtic temples with surviving archaeological potential are considered to be of national importance.

Despite damage caused by prolonged ploughing, the Romano-Celtic temple complex 400m south of Dell Farm survives well. Limited archaeological investigations have clearly demonstrated both the size of the complex and the substantial and elaborate nature of its buildings and boundary walls. The resulting information provides a valuable insight into the ritual practices of the inhabitants of the adjacent Roman town at Great Chesterford, and indicates the considerable investment of individual or pooled resources required for its construction, itself a reflection of the particular significance of religion in Roman Britain. Although part of the site, including the central building, has been excavated, the greater part of the area within the temenos has not been explored. Archaeological deposits within this area, including foundations, surfaces, pits and artefactual deposits will provide further information regarding the date and duration of the temple's use, the methods of construction employed and the nature of the ritual activity for which it was designed. The evidence for ritual activity on the same site prior to the construction of the Romanised building is particularly significant. This may have provided a template for the later structure and suggests a strong continuity of expressed belief and of social organisation from the Late Iron Age into the Roman period.


The monument includes the buried remains of a substantial Romano-British temple complex located within an arable field on the broad sloping hillside on the east side of the River Cam, 0.5km to the north east of the village of Great Chesterford. The site of the Iron Age settlement, Roman fort and market town for which Great Chesterford is widely known, lies about 1km to the west of the temple and is the subject of a separate scheduling. The central building was discovered in 1847 and excavated under the direction of the Hon R C Neville, later Lord Braybrooke of Audley End, who incorrectly interpreted the remains as part of a Roman villa. He exposed the foundations of a square cella (the inner sanctum of the temple) about 7m in width, surrounded by a narrow passageway, or ambulatory. The remains of two elaborate mosaic floors were found within this structure: a pattern of concentric circles surrounded by a square border in the cella, and an interlaced design within the ambulatory; illustrations of both were published in 1848. The re-excavation of the temple in 1978 provided far greater details of the date and evolution of the structure. Evidence was found of a small Late Iron Age ditched enclosure and structure, similar in outline to the temple and probably a precursor to the Romanised building which was erected on the same spot in the period AD 60-70. The Romano-Celtic temple, with walls of mortared flint, internal plasterwork and tiled roof, remained in use throughout the later first and early second centuries, during which time a porch was added to the entrance. The building is thought to have been abandoned in the mid-second century and allowed to decay until major refurbishment took place after AD 270. In this final phase the porch was dismantled and replaced, the remaining walls strengthened (thereby reducing the floor space within the ambulatory), and the mosaics discovered in 1847 were laid. The restored structure remained in use until the late fourth century. The temple is situated near the centre of a large enclosure, or temenos, which is slightly more rhombic than square in plan and measures approximately 100m in width. The results of limited excavations between 1983 and 1988 indicate that the enclosure boundary began with a palisade, perhaps in the Iron Age, which was subsequently replaced by a large ditch and ultimately superseded by a wall of mortared flint coursed with tile. Access was provided by an entranceway in the centre of the eastern arm where trackways of various periods led across a gap in the ditch and through two buttressed gateways or arches in the boundary wall. The foundations of a second building were found some 7.5m inside the precinct, situated directly between the entranceway and the temple. This building, also constructed in mortared flint, formed a narrow chamber with protruding doorways facing the temple at either end. The internal surface of the eastern wall had been rendered with painted plaster and evidence was found to suggest a plastered ceiling as well as a tiled roof. A small kiln or oven had been set into the flint and chalk floor towards the end of the building's life in the late third or fourth century, at which time similar features were built between the gateway and the temenos ditch. Pits and hollows of various sizes were found throughout the excavated areas, but a small excavation in the south western corner of the precinct revealed a distinct concentration of pits, some as much as 3m in depth, containing accumulations of ash, animal bone, oyster shells and pottery. These are thought to have been used for the disposal of waste from religious feasts which appear, from the evidence of animal remains, to have coincided with the culling of lambs in the spring and autumn. Other ritual activities are indicated by the large number of votive offerings including coins, brooches and other items of personal adornment, the majority of which were found in the area between the temple and the gateway. The single most spectacular object related to the religious nature of the site is a silver mask with Celtic-type lentoid eyes and moustache, discovered during the 1978 excavations.

MAP EXTRACT The site of the monument is shown on the attached map extract. It includes a 2 metre boundary around the archaeological features, considered to be essential for the monument's support and preservation.


The contents of this record have been generated from a legacy data system.

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Books and journals
Burnham, B, Wacher, J, The 'Small Towns' of Roman Britain, (1990), 138-42
Neville, R C, Sepulchra Exposita, (1848)
Miller, T E, 'Proc. Cambs. Antiq. Soc.' in The Romano-British Temple Precinct at Great Chesterford, Essex, , Vol. LXXXIV, (1996), 15-58
Collins, A E, Excavation and Research in the Great Chesterford Region 1965-85, 1996, EAA monograph (draft) Essex SMR
Draft EAA monograph (copy in SMR), Collins, A E, Excavation and Research in the Great Chesterford Region 1965-85, (1996)


This monument is scheduled under the Ancient Monuments and Archaeological Areas Act 1979 as amended as it appears to the Secretary of State to be of national importance. This entry is a copy, the original is held by the Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport.

End of official listing

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