Cernunnos in Cambridgeshire

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This figurine, recovered from a late Iron Age/early Roman settlement in the grounds of Wimpole Hall in Cambridgeshire, depicts the Celtic god, Cernunnos.(PHOTO: National Trust Images, James Fairbairn, Oxford Archaeology East)

A figurine thought to be Britain’s only known example depicting the Celtic god Cernunnos has been found during the excavation of a late Iron Age/early Roman settlement in Cambridgeshire.

Located within the grounds of the 17th-century National Trust property Wimpole Hall, the 2,000-year-old settlement was first flagged during an initial geophysical survey by Cranfield University in 2015. Subsequent trial trenching by Oxford Archaeology East yielded late Iron Age/early Roman pottery, and the site was dated to c.100 BC-AD 150. Most recently, OAE’s full excavation of the site (undertaken last autumn ahead of major infrastructure improvement works) has revealed an extensive settlement covering 1.6 hectares. More than 300 metal objects were recovered during the investigation, suggesting that this site may have enjoyed a position at the centre of a successful trade network.

Among these finds was a rare copper-alloy human figurine approximately 5cm tall. Although there is no discernible face, the figure appears to be holding a ‘torc’ – a high-status neck ring – and is believed to be a depiction of Cernunnos, the Celtic god of wild things. It is thought to be a unique find for Britain: figurines representing this particular god are more commonly associated with north-eastern Gaul. Dated to the 2nd century AD, this discovery lends support to the idea that Iron Age religious symbolism continued in Britain in some form into the Roman period (see CA 345).

‘This is an incredibly exciting discovery, which to me represents more than just the deity, Cernunnos,’ said Shannon Hogan, National Trust Archaeologist for the East of England. ‘It almost seems like the enigmatic “face” of the people living in the landscape some 2,000 years ago. The artefact is Roman in origin but symbolises a Celtic deity, and therefore exemplifies the continuation of indigenous religious and cultural symbolism in Romanised societies.’

Other metal artefacts discovered at Wimpole include coins, horse-harness fittings, Roman military-uniform fittings, cosmetic tools, brooches, key handles, a spearhead, an axe head, and a ring, as well as numerous pieces of scrap lead. All of the finds are currently undergoing post-excavation conservation and analysis, and will eventually form part of future exhibitions at Wimpole.

This article appeared in CA 348.

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