Springhead (Vagniacis) Roman Town and Temple complex

Minor Settlement and Temple Or Shrine

The sanctuary at Springhead, ‘Vagniacis’, is located where Watling Street cross the head of the Ebbsfleet Valley. The site has been excavated on numerous occasions, first in the 18th century and more recently during excavations linked to the Channel Tunnel Rail Link.

There are signs of local industries to the north of the settlement, where substantial Roman buildings have been found at Northfleet (TQ6174) and a pottery kiln at Galley Hill (TQ6074). The Dart Valley to the south-west is also crammed with settlement activity, there are substantial Roman buildings at Horton Kirby (TQ5668), Eynsford (TQ5465) and Shoreham (TQ5262), and villas at Darenth (TQ5670), Franks (TQ5567), Farningham (TQ5466) and Lullingstone (TQ5265). There is another villa about five miles south of the settlement at Ash (TQ6065).

Romano-British Temples at Springhead

At the heart of Springhead, at the head of the River Ebbsfleet, was a pool fed by eight natural springs, an unusually large number that made the site sacred to the Celts, who began settling there around 100BC. They called the site Vagniacis (‘the place of marshes’). Excavation revealed a 600-metre ceremonial way, sacred pits filled with animal remains and pots, as well as numerous coins.

Two square temples (1 to N, 2 to S), and three rectangular temples (3 to 5), all lie within a single temenos beside the Watling Street:

Romano-British Temple – Springhead 1

This temple has a portico 36 feet square and a cella 18 ft. 8 in. square; all walls are a uniform 1¾ feet thick which suggest a half-timbered superstructure with the outer wall solid. Originally built c.90AD, by the mid-2nd century the walls had been rebuilt, the floors raised, a mosaic added to the cella, the walls replastered and a temenos added. By the turn of the 3rd century the walls were repaired. antae were added amd a mosaic pavement added to the porch. There was another big rebuild around the turn of the 4th century, but by the mid-4th the mozaics had been removed and the building converted for use as a smithy. The original temple faced east. (Type Id, or IId)

Romano-British Temple – Springhead 2

The portico of this temple measures 35¼ x 38½ feet with a wall 1¾ feet thick, the cella measures 19¼ x 21 feet (bases?). Built around the turn of the 3rd century but abandoned by the middle of the 4th. The temple faced east. (Type Ie, possibly IIe)

Rectangular Temple/Pool – Springhead 3

This rectangular structure with 3 ft. thick flint walls measures 29 ft. by 19 ft. 4 ins. across the outer edges and lies within the temenos just north of Temple#1. The construction date suggested by sealed pottery is sometime around 150-60AD. It is thought that this structure did not constitute a temple as such, but was perhaps a sacred pool. Thousands of pottery sherds including Antonine ‘samian’, 2nd-century Castor ware and early-3rd century coarse ware found scattered about the clay floor of the structure are thought to have been votive in nature.

Rectangular Temple – Springhead 4

This small temple with walls of flint and chalk lay just north-east of Temples 1-3, though within the same temple precinct or temenos. It measures only 10 ft. 4 ins. by 15 ft. 1 in. Within, a cross-wall divided the building into 2 rooms, an anteroom measuring 7 ft. 7 ins. square internally, with a cella beyond only 3¾ ft deep. A tiled base on the north side of the anteroom possibly held cult objects, while to the south of this chamber where the entrance was probably located, a set of six pillars across the room would have served to separate the – rather small – congregation from these hallowed objects. Recovered wall plaster suggests that both rooms were painted in a geometric pattern of blue, green and cream. Two separate floors were laid during the Antonine period, after which a layer of turf indicated a certain number of years during which the temple was without a roof. Another floor of rammed chalk indicating a second period of use sealed a barbarous radiate coin of Claudius II. This shows interrupted use from the mid-2nd century until at least the late-3rd or early-4th centuries.

Rectangular Temple – Springhead 5

This small rectangular temple lies beside Temple#2 and partly beneath the railway embankment. It measures 17½ ft. by 13¾ ft. with walls between 1¼ and 1¾ feet thick. Its exact purpose is uncertain but its inclusion within the sacred precinct of the temenos confirms a religious function.

Literary references for Vagniacis (Springhead)

Although three of the road-routes in the late-2nd century Antonine Itinerary pass through Springhead (Itinera II-IV), the town is mentioned in only one of them, perhaps indicating that the settlement here was relatively minor. Iter II, “the route from the Wall [of Hadrian] to the port of Rutupiae (Richborough, Kent)”, records the name Vagniacis, some 18 miles from Noviomagus (Crayford, Greater London) and 9 miles from Durobrivae (Rochester, Kent). The context of the document indicates that the name Vagniacis is rendered in the dative case (i.e.to [the settlement at] Springhead’), which means that the Roman name would appear in the nominative as Vagniacae, the meaning of which is unclear.

It is not mentioned in the Third and Fourth Iters, the Peutinger Tables or the Ravenna List.

Epigraphic findings at Vagniacis (Springhead)

There are only two entries in the R.I.B. for the Springhead site, both consisting of a single Roman letter. The first to be discovered was a stone marked X (RIB 40), and in 1970 another stone was found with the letter A (RIB 40a; Britannia ii (1971), p.289, no.1); neither of which are particularly helpful.

References for Vagniacis (Springhead)

  • Historical Map and Guide – Roman Britain by the Ordnance Survey (3rd, 4th & 5th eds., 1956, 1994 & 2001);
  • Temples in Roman Britain by M.J.T. Lewis (Cambridge 1966); The Roman Inscriptions of Britain by R.G. Collingwood and R.P. Wright (Oxford 1965).
  • https://www.wessexarch.co.uk/our-work/high-speed-1-springhead
  • https://webapps.kent.gov.uk/KCC.ExploringKentsPast.Web.Sites.Public/SingleResult.aspx?uid=%27mke1632%27
Sites near Springhead (Vagniacis) Roman Town and Temple complex