Uley Shrine

Temple Or Shrine

Uley Shrine is an archaeological site of a later prehistoric and Romano‐British ritual site and temple in the southern Cotswolds. It was discovered accidently by the Severn and Trent Water Authority during 1976. It was excavated extensively by Ann Woodward and Peter Leach between 1977 and 1979. The site has its beginnings around the time of the 4th millennium BC where it is believed the original site consisted of standing stones. At some point between the 2nd and 1st century BC it was expanded upon to include two timber shrines surrounded by palisades and ditches (Darvill 2008).

This excavation studied 2150 square meters resulting in many finds including 20 buildings, over 60,000 pieces of pottery and upwards of 250,000 animal bone remains indicating that this was a well used site over a long period of time. From the evidence that has been discovered it is assumed that the site was in use up to the 8th century AD (Woodward and Leach 1993: 12).

Pre Roman

The original site is thought to have been a sanctuary of some sorts in the Neolithic age and this fact is what inspired the construction during the Iron Age in the last century BC. Evidence shows a 20 metre enclosure flanked by a ditch on three sides with some small evidence pointing towards further ditches beyond this. At the site remains were found of votive pits and what was is believed to have been a shrine made of timber. Other finds include pottery, jewellery and Dobunnic coins.

Early Roman Stone Temple at Uley

When the Romans eventually invaded Britain the site would undergo initial changes beginning in 50 AD with reconstructions and by 100 AD a stone temple was built dedicated to the Roman god Mercury (Darvill 2013). Data suggests this early Roman temple would have been square in shape with measurements of 14 x 12 metres on the outside with an internal chamber (cella.) The conformity of the new temple is shown by the fact that it also faced to the east suggesting that there had been continuous worship happening in the area which effected this decision. This theory can also be supported by the various goat and sheep remains at the site which reveal the possibility that the natives may have worshipped a god which had horns. The worship of the deity may have caused the Romans to make the comparison to that of their own god Mercury resulting in the new temple being dedicated to him (Adams 2005: 66).

The Romano-Celtic era temple is thought to have conformed to similar usage as other temples in the south of England from the time. As with other temples from the south the temple in Uley was a simple square-shaped building (as mentioned earlier), built upon the older shrine that was there before. Due to the small size it is theorised that it would not have been used as a place of mass worship, rather people would congregate there for religious festivals. Remains of other buildings on this site can perhaps lend credence to such a theory (Hunter and Ralston 2009: 212-213).

One important find at the site was the head of a statue of Mercury which as earlier stated was the Roman God the stone temple was dedicated towards. The statue itself was carved from oolitic limestone and carved in the usual style of the classical period. The head of the statue was discovered in a pit where it is thought to have been buried with care. Along with it other fragments were found including the left thigh and lower right leg as well as stone remains which may have been an added cloak. With animal fragments from cockerels and rams also discovered it is believe the statue may have had representations of these creatures, again fitting in with the style of the era (Ferris 2012: 41).

It is theorised that the native Dobunni people capitulated to the Romans rather early and this newer temple was built by their elites as a way of ascribing to Roman culture, whilst still in some ways practicing their own native beliefs. The evidence which supports this is the Iron Age pit which continues to see use even after the stone temple is built as well as the Iron Age style spears that were dedicated at the temple. Further upon this is the manner in which the head of the Mercury statue was buried reflecting the customs of the native Celtic religion (Adams 2005).

From the data that has been discovered the Roman era temple seems to have been destroyed around the 5th century, in what can seem to be discerned as desecration of a pagan temple by Christians. There is some evidence of smaller stone structures indicating possible Christian use after this time but there is little that has been found to determine this for sure. What we do know however is the site was reused again somewhere between the 5th and 6th century. During this later period an enclosed bank was dug, followed by the building of a timber church. The church was used for roughly two centuries, at some point having red window glass installed. Finally the site was abandoned after the 8th century and this church was demolished with the land then being used for agricultural production (Historic England 2015).

Overall not only is this site fascinating for the length of time it was used for but due to the method of study that was employed on site. Instead of the usual method where things are only studied chronologically the site at Uley was also studied from a socio-economic perspective. This allowed the researchers to place the site in the wider Romano-Celtic economic picture as well as the cultural practices of the natives (Ferris 2012: 39-40).

Bibliography

  • Adams, G. 2005. Romano-Celtic Élites and Their Religion. Armidale: Caeros Pty Ltd.
  • Darvill, T. 2008. Concise Oxford Dictionary of Archaeology. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
  • Darvill, T. 2013. Prehistoric Gloucestershire: Forests and Vales and High Blue. Stroud: Amberley Publishing.
  • Ferris, I. 2012. Roman Britain through its Objects. Stroud: Amberley Publishing.
  • Historic England, West Hill Romano-Celtic Complex (2015). Available online: http://www.pastscape.org.uk/hob.aspx?hob_id=205240&sort=4&search=all&criteria=Uley%20Shrines&rational=q&recordsperpage=10 [Accessed: 17/11/2015].
  • Hunter, J. & I. Ralston (eds.) 2009. The Archaeology of Britain: An Introduction from Earliest times to the Twenty First Century. London: Routledge.
  • Woodward, A. & P. Leach 1993. The Uley Shrines: Excavation of a ritual complex on West Hill, Uley, Gloucestershire: 1977-9. London: English Heritage.
  • https://archaeologydataservice.ac.uk/archiveDS/archiveDownload?t=arch-1416-1/dissemination/pdf/9781848022157_ALL_72.pdf