Rites before romanitas: Reconstructing Britain’s Iron Age beliefs

5 mins read
This carved head – depicting a male gorgon like figure – has been interpreted as representing a British water god. It once adorned the temple of Sulis-Minerva (herself a hybrid Roman/British deity) at Bath’s Roman bathing complex. (IMAGE: Brian Snelson (CC BY 2.0))
We are all familiar with the Classical gods who were imported to these shores with the arrival of the Roman army, but the beliefs and religious practices of Britain’s Iron Age inhabitants are far more shadowy. Miranda Aldhouse-Green explores how far archaeology can help to illuminate this enigmatic picture.

Sometime during the early 2nd century AD, the body of a young woman named Bodicacia was buried in a cemetery just outside the walls of Corinium (Roman Cirencester), the capital of the British tribe of the Dobunni. Her grave was marked by an elaborate and finely inscribed gable-topped tombstone, which was found during excavation of the cemetery in 2015 (see CA 302). Curiously, though, it was not marking her own burial place, but had been relocated to lie face-down on a later tomb. Why should this memorial be relevant to the religious beliefs and customs of Iron Age Britain?

The answer lies in two of its features. First, Bodicacia’s British name is closely tied philologically to that of the (in)famous Iceni queen Boudica, whose rebellion of AD 60/61 so nearly cost Rome her most westerly province less than 20 years after the Claudian invasion of south-east Britain. The second significant aspect of the tombstone is the carved decoration filling its triangular gable: it depicts the distinctive crab claw-adorned head of Oceanus, Roman god of the great river that inhabitants of the Classical world believed encircled the civilised world (a world which, according to some ancient literary testimonies, did not include Britain). But that is not all: on Bodicacia’s gravestone Oceanus has been deliberately defaced, his image rubbed out in antiquity. Was this the work of iconoclast Christians? Or could it have been a gesture of protest against the romanitas so blatantly imposed on the grave-marker of a very British Dobunnic woman?

Excavated by Cotswold Archaeology in Cirencester, this gravestone commemorates a Romano-British woman called Bodicacia. It is topped with the image of the Roman god Oceanus – but the deity has been literally defaced. (IMAGE: Cotswold Archaeology)

Tracking down Iron Age religion is far from easy. Pre-Roman Britain was essentially non-literate, meaning that any evidence for Iron Age Britons’ beliefs concerning the divine world is inevitably shadowy, ambiguous, and – perhaps – more subjective than for Roman Britain. That is not to say that the Romano-British written record does not suffer from its own evidential problems, though; Classical writers show clear bias, influenced by genuine ignorance, ‘barbarian’ stereotyping, and a lack of interest in the religious affairs of the empire’s foreign subjects. It is perplexing that, even after 200 years of Britannia’s membership of the Roman Empire, educated ancient authors could still peddle the image of this island’s inhabitants as barely human. The comments of the Greek writer Herodian are a case in point: ‘The British barbarians usually swim or run through the marshes that cover Britain. Of course they are practically naked and do not mind the mud because they are unfamiliar with the use of clothing…’.

Yet there are clues to be gleaned from these sources. One recurrent theme is that of the Druids, a religious order mentioned by at least 30 authors from the Greek and Roman world. Julius Caesar is our most informative source. In his mid-1st-century war-diaries (the de bello Gallico), he comments that Druidism had its origins in Britain and was exported to Gaul. Since Caesar was no armchair historian but spent a decade in this latter location, as well as making two brief visits to Britain, it is tempting to treat his testimony as having a kernel of reliability. Yet about a century later Pliny contradicts Caesar, attesting to the Gallic origins of Druidism and its westward spread to Britannia.

The Druids have taken a powerful hold of the public imagination as Iron Age priests and political leaders – here, a romantic image of such a figure is depicted on a copper-alloy token that was issued by the Parys Mountain Mining Company in the late 18th century. Yet, for all their popular appeal, no archaeological evidence that can be confidently linked to their activities has ever been found in Britain. (IMAGE: Gwynedd Archaeological Trust/Portable Antiquities Scheme)

How far we can rely on any of the ancient texts on Druids is open to vigorous debate. But the fact that so many references to them survive lends strength to the idea that they did exist in some form. Yet, alas, there is absolutely no archaeological evidence at all that can be confidently linked to the Druids in all of Iron Age Britain. What, then, can archaeology reveal about this country’s pre-Roman rites and beliefs?

The Aylesford Bucket is adorned with elaborate human heads and stylised horses (seen on the left side of the top band of decoration) that may depict people in animal costumes. (IMAGE: Trustees of the British Museum)

The famous Aylesford Bucket, found during Arthur Evans’ excavations of a late Iron Age Kentish cemetery in the late 19th century, is one of a group of several Gallo-British vessels accompanying high-status cremation graves of the late 1st century BC/ early 1st century AD. They were probably designed to hold locally made alcohol such as beer, mead, or fermented berry-juices, but this particular example is remarkable for its ornamentation, featuring two elaborately crowned human heads rearing above the vessel’s handles; and an extraordinary decorative frieze just below the rim which bears the singular image of two ‘pantomime horses’ facing each other. The rear legs of these beasts, and their peculiar jutting lips, clearly betray their depiction of two people dressed up in animal costume. To whom did this vessel belong, and might its decoration reflect the identity of its owner?

In many traditional societies, notably in Siberia and the Americas, certain individuals are perceived to have the power to negotiate with the spirit world as shamans – ‘double-spirit’ people, who lived dual lives in the realms of the human and the divine, and who were able to determine the will of the gods. Sometimes these split selves dress up in the guise of the opposite sex or wear animal-skins or feathers in order both to express and facilitate their identity as boundary-crossers. It is possible that the person whose remains were interred at Aylesford was depicted in human form in the two crowned escutcheon heads and in animal costume on the frieze. If the bucket does represent a shamanic identity, there is other circumstantial evidence for the presence of such people in Iron Age British communities.

Excavated by Colchester Archaeological Trust, the Stanway ‘Doctor’s grave’ contained intriguing artefacts, including a set of medical instruments, a gaming board arranged mid-game (its counters can be seen towards the bottom of this image), and a number of metal rods. (IMAGE: Colchester Archaeological Trust)

Of the many functions ascribed to the Druids by ancient authors like Caesar, the shaman-like ability to communicate with the Otherworld was a key element of their powers, allowing them to effect spiritual healing and guide people in crucial decision-making. Caesar’s contemporary, Cicero, spoke of a Gallic chieftain named Divitiacus, whom the Roman orator met in 60 BC when the Aeduan ruler visited Rome to ask for aid in pushing back tribes threatening his territory. Cicero commented that Divitiacus was a Druid skilled in divination, the rituals required to foretell the future by learning the will of the gods. Can we find evidence for such rites in Britain?

This is an excerpt from a feature published in CA 345. Read on in the magazine. Click here to subscribe

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