Gods and Goddesses, Heroes and Heroines in the Nene Valley
Roman sculpture from Stanwick, Northamptonshire.
Most excavations produce surprises, and our work at Stanwick, Northamptonshire, was certainly no exception, with the discovery of an impressive assemblage of monumental Roman sculpture re-used as building material in the later fourth century.
The site was excavated between 1984 and 1992 by teams formerly part of English Heritage (now Historic England) led by David Neal (then a field officer in English Heritage’s Central Excavation Unit). English Heritage funded the work in advance of gravel extraction because of the importance of the site – the area is now the Stanwick Lakes nature reserve and country park, and there’s a lake where the villa once stood.
David’s excavations extended over 30 hectares (more than 75 acres), revealing extensive activity from the early Iron Age to the end of the Romano-British period. The scattered houses and ditches from the early Iron Age were followed by the development of an unenclosed settlement in an organised landscape in the middle Iron Age. The enclosure and trackways established by the first century AD formed the framework for the development of a Romano-British agricultural village set between the River Nene and the Roman road. Complex buildings including a large aisled hall were constructed during the third century AD, the hall was incorporated into a corridor villa during the later fourth century. The sequence is described in a Historic England Research Report.
In 1990 David was focussing on excavating the villa.Sometime after AD364, the aisled hall was enlarged with additional rooms to each side fronted by a corridor with wing rooms, and the construction of a new bath suite. The changes are dated by a coin sealed under one of the new mosaic floors. One room had a channelled hypocaust providing underfloor heating. To help unpick the sequence of the buildings, David used a high-pressure air gun to clean the stonework and reveal differences in construction and materials.
This soon produced exciting and unexpected results - a large corner stone (17 centimetres high, 32 centimetres wide and 47 centimetres deep) different from the surrounding masonry was the first (and one of the most spectacular) pieces of sculpture found, showing a horse’s foreleg and hoof trampling on the head of a figure who probably represents a fallen giant or barbarian (a non-Roman).
Work on the villa continued, and a week or two later the channels of the hypocaust were cleared. The team soon found more fragments of sculpture built into their walls, and the scale of the discoveries became apparent. The walls were surveyed and photographed, and then carefully dismantled.
In all, 280 pieces of sculpture and architectural stonework were recovered from in and around the villa complex, and David felt that this remarkable collection probably came from an elaborate monument. The discovery created considerable public interest, with both newspaper and television coverage.
Thirty years on, specialists Martin Henig and Penny Coombe (University of Oxford) and Kevin Hayward (University of Reading) have just completed analysis of the sculpture, including a report by Sarah Paynter (Historic England Materials Scientist) on the pigments used. The full report will appear in the journal Britannia next year, and some of their results and interpretations are described here.
The pieces of sculpture and architectural details together comprise the largest and most important collection of such material from Eastern Britain, except for the sculpture from a monumental arch re-used as building blocks in the late- Roman riverside wall in London.
It’s clear that we only have a very small part of what had once existed, as can be seen from one of the key pieces: we have the horse’s foreleg and the barbarian with his splendid moustache but nothing else survives of the horse or its rider.
Martin and Penny dated the sculpture to the early third century AD on stylistic grounds. Based on the scale and quality of the sculptured stones and the scenes portrayed, they suggest that the stones derive from at least two impressive monuments which presumably stood nearby. The likeliest location is within a walled enclosure east of the aisled hall, which contained two small shrines of late second or third century date and seems to have formed a ritual focus.
The tower tomb
They argue that most of the stones came from a tower-tomb of a type represented by a surviving example at Igel near Trier in Germany. This stands 23 metres high, and even if the Stanwick tomb were smaller, perhaps half to three-quarters the size, it would have dominated the flat landscape and been clearly visible from the road along the valley.
They argue that most of the stones came from a tower-tomb of a type represented by a surviving example at Igel near Trier in Germany . This stands 23 metres high, and even if the Stanwick tomb were smaller, perhaps half to three-quarters the size, it would have dominated the flat landscape and been clearly visible from the road along the valley.
It is tempting to attempt a reconstruction from what remains. At the top there was a pyramidal crown embellished with leaves or leaf-like tiles Similar examples from tombs have been found in London and at Verulamium - the modern St Albans. Below there is likely to have been a pediment and the most suitable motif here would have been the strikingly dramatic mask of a water-god (the size of a human head) of which one side remains. This is most probably Oceanus, the classical personification of the sea, and a suitable figure for tombs as the souls of the dead were believed to pass over the sea to the Isles of the Blessed. Similar heads of Oceanus are shown on a recently discovered tombstone from Cirencester and on the pediment of a small tomb at Chester.
The middle and principal stage of the tomb may have been dominated by a niche in the form of a scallop or cockle shell, flanked on each side by dolphins and maintaining the maritime theme. If the canopy was semi-circular, its diameter would have been about 1.10 metres. A bare human foot on top of the shell suggests a figure about 1.2 metres high (about two-thirds life size), and these pieces give an idea of the scale of this section.
What stood in the niche? We suggest a free-standing sculpture of the deceased, perhaps half to three-quarters life size.
Other fragments of sculpture clearly allude to Graeco-Roman mythology. One of them almost certainly represents the hero Perseus, who was probably depicted rescuing Andromeda from a sea-monster.
However, the bound female figure is likely to be the mythical Trojan princess Hesione, waiting to be rescued by Hercules (that episode is represented on a sculpture from Chester). The scale of the two pieces are different, suggesting that both stories were represented.
As for the rider trampling a fallen opponent: this is no ordinary barbarian but probably represents Death itself. The idea of a heroic rider is well known from the tombstones of Roman auxiliary soldiers, but in eastern Britain, for example at Stragglethorpe, Lincolnshire, there are figurines and reliefs which equate him with Mars, normally a god of war but here less a military figure than a god offering protection from misfortune.
The tomb would have been richly embellished, and was probably the source of some of the architectural elements, including fragments from a decorative frieze. Traces of red and white pigment survived on some of the carvings. It must have been built for a wealthy individual or family, and along with the aisled hall may have represented their increasing wealth and importance during the third century. The Igel monument was erected for the Secundinii family, wealthy local cloth merchants.
A statue to Jupiter?
Three other pieces of sculpture appear to come from a different type of monument. One of them is a relief depicting the upper parts of three deities: Minerva, Jupiter (only his right arm survives) and the neck and shoulder of another figure, probably Juno. These were the chief deities of the Roman state, known as the Capitoline Triad. The relief is likely to come from a major, official shrine, serving either as an altar or as a statue base on which a figure of Jupiter himself would have been carved in the round.
Two pieces may be all that survives of the statue. One is a part of a muscular male torso, possibly Jupiter himself. The other is the eagle, Jupiter’s companion and messenger, which would have looked up at him, an association known from other monuments. Both pieces are carved in the same Weldon stone (Kevin’s analysis of the stone used in the carvings has greatly contributed to our understanding of the monuments).
An inscription – and an official role?
There is support for an official presence from the fragmentary remains of an inscription dedicated to a deity (probably Jupiter) ‘in honour of the Divine House’ (i.e. the Imperial Family) by three people (one with the Greek name Ischolaos) probably serving in an official capacity at what may have been an imperial estate centre. The inscription may relate to the Jupiter monument, though it seems too insubstantial to have come from its base, which may have had a prominent inscription, like a base from Chichester reading simply I ♦ O ♦ M (standing for Iovi Optimo Maximo , Jupiter the best and greatest), above a similar phrase honouring the ‘divine house’.
Could Stanwick and its apsidal aisled hall have had an official role in the administration of land owned by the emperor in this part of the Nene valley? That’s a further research question for investigation!
Destruction and re-use
We do not know why these monuments were desecrated, although we do know that this happened before the fragments were re-used in the villa , and the tower tomb may have been removed along with the small shrine when a large courtyard was laid out in front of the villa. It’s possible that the relatively soft limestone had become weathered and the monuments had fallen into such disrepair that despite strict Roman laws about the desecration of tombs, the monumental tomb was a tempting source for building material. Maybe it had simply fallen down through age. However a shrine to Jupiter in honour of the Imperial Family could have been quite another matter: desecrating it could have implied treason, Maiestas.
A tempting explanation, especially as the date of re-use was well into the 4th century, is that as the Empire had become Christian, many temples and shrines were being closed and vandalised and their raw materials taken to serve secular purposes. Maybe this was the fate of the Jupiter monument.
The tower tomb may have fared better. Most tombs of this type also show domestic scenes, but we found only one fragment of this type. So possibly only the religious sculpture was stripped from the tomb - perhaps scenes from the life of the deceased and possibly even their portraits were allowed to remain alongside the villa into the later fourth century.
About the authors
Martin Henig MA D.Phil D.Litt FSA
Rev. Dr Martin Henig is an archaeologist and art-historian who lives in Oxford and works on Roman engraved gemstones and the art and culture of Roman Britain. His books include Religion in Roman Britain (1984), The Art of Roman Britain (1995) and The Heirs of King Verica (2002) as well as three volumes of the Corpus of Roman Sculpture from Britain, the last on London and the South-East with Penny Coombe and Kevin Hayward who were partners in working on the sculpture from Stanwick. Most recently he published The Complete Content Cameos, the largest collection of Roman cameos in private hands, with Helen Molesworth. From 1984 to 2006 he was Editor of the Journal of the British Archaeological Association. Outside archaeology he is an Anglican priest with especial interest in Animal Ethics.
Archaeologist with Historic England
Vicky has worked on Stanwick and the Raunds Iron Age and Romano-British Project since she joined English Heritage/Historic England. She has contributed to many other projects, including work on the Romano-British landscape around Silbury Hill. She is interested in Iron Age and Romano-British rural settlement and economy, and in developing excavation and recording methods.
The development of the Stanwick Iron Age and Romano-British settlement is described in Vicky Crosby and Liz Muldowney 2013: Stanwick Quarry, Northamptonshire: Raunds Area Project: Phasing the Iron Age and Romano-British settlements at Stanwick, Northamptonshire (excavations 1984–1992), volumes 1 and 2. Historic England Research Report Series, no. 54–2011
The article on the sculpture will be published in the journal Britannia for 2021. It will then be open access and available for download via the Britannia website Penny Coombe, Kevin Hayward and Martin Henig, with Vicky Crosby, Andrew Lowerre, David Neal and Sarah Paynter 'The sculpted and architectural stonework from Stanwick Roman villa, Northamptonshire'. Britannia 52
To find out more about other Roman sculpture in south-east England, see
Penny Coombe, Frances Grew, Kevin Hayward and Martin Henig 2015: Corpus Signorum Imperii Romani, Great Britain, i.10: Roman Sculpture from London and the South East. Oxford University Press
The inscription (RIB 3135) is described and illustrated in the Roman Inscriptions of Britain online database