Exploring the beliefs of English people during the fifth to ninth centuries
Places of Romano-British worship
One thing that archaeologists agree on is that pre-Christian Anglo-Saxons continued to use sacred sites which go back to the Roman period and the earlier Iron Age. Presumably the 'history' of these places would be, at best, mythic. But they would be have been thought of as the places where the gods were in some sense 'nearer'. They would also have been significant places of great importance in the region.
Although most of what we know about Iron Age religion comes from Germanic rather than Celtic speaking tribes, we can be reasonably confident that they all worshipped in woodland groves. However most probably they didn't only worship in groves – quite plausibly they also performed rituals in their own homes. It's just that the more domestic activities didn't get the attention of the historians.
Once the Romans arrive on the scene then temples and similar shrines begin to be erected too. But, so far as well can tell, these appear in the same sort of woodland places – perhaps associated with the sources of significant rivers – as hitherto.
Throughout Europe springs have been venerated since pre-Christian times. After the conversion large numbers of wells were dedicated to saints or otherwise deemed to be holy. Archaeologists have also discovered evidence of sometimes extensive ritual depositions at the edges of fens and pools in boggy areas. Such watery places were most likely to have been originally enclosed by trees.
No matter how important watery places might have been as ritual sites in the Bronze and Iron Ages, there was another type of ritual site which seems to have been even more important. One where springs are least likely to be encountered: hill tops.
The Anglo-Saxons had a name for these places – hearg – which would have been pronounced something like 'harrow'. And indeed there are a number of 'Harrow Hills' in England, along with places such as Harrow on the Hill. Originally said to be Anglo-Saxon temples, this idea now seems to be downright wrong. Instead, they are areas measuring tens of hectares in which archaeologists find evidence of ritual activity starting in the Iron Age, spanning the Roman era and into the early Anglo-Saxon period. In other words, over 1,500 years of seemingly continuous activity. Conspicuous only by its complete absence is any evidence for settlement. (See Places of Anglo-Saxon worship for a more detailed discussion.)
We can deduce that such 'harrows' were usually central to tribal areas. Because they were on prominent hills – characteristically ones that look somewhat like a beached whale – they are visible from much of that territory. Whether people on the top of the hill would have been able to see clearly is a moot point as, presumably, woodland grew over at least part of these hills.
The Iron Age and Roman-British people would not have known the Anglo-Saxon word hearg of course. But there was a Latin word, nemetona, which means 'sacred groves'. Confusingly, Nementona is also the name of a goddess of battles. This is less a case of the sacred groves being named after a goddess than the other way about – a confusion over the meaning of the word which led to the local deity taking on the name of the location.
Nementona are found throughout Celtic countries. In England there is a cluster of place-names in Devon which derive from nemeton – although most of them are now spelt 'Nymet' or such like. On the Leicestershire-Nottinghamshire border where the Fosse Way runs from Leicester to Newark there was a small Roman town called Vernemetum – the 'great or especially sacred grove'. The distinction – if any – between Roman-British nemeton and Anglo-Saxon heagh is unclear, simply because too little archaeological investigation has taken place.
I have discussed Vernemetum and an associated hearg in considerable detail in The Especially Sacred Grove: Six Hills and Vernemetum, Leicestershire
The Romans were fond of constructing shrines or small temples. These were known as temenos, which literally means a 'place set apart'. And the demarcation was a ditch – although there may have been a simple fence too. The enclosures were usually square. Some of the Roman temples are built over Iron Age precursors. And the Anglo-Saxons continued to mark out trees, wells and stones with some sort of enclosure – the Old English word was frith. Ecclesiastical leaders were still forbidding the worship of such enclosed trees, wells and stones as late as the tenth century – although there is a suspicion that these decrees were already archaic formulae rather than necessarily accurately reflecting what people were actually doing at the time.
copyright © Bob Trubshaw 2013