Spectacular discovery: Dutch archaeologists unearth one of the most complete Roman temples in Nort-Western Europe

It's unique to find so many of them within this region", said one archaeologist about the excavation of dozens of votive stones

Archaeologists excavating a water well near the temple complex. Image: Screenshot RCE

Excitement in the Netherlands, as archaeologists discovered a 2000-year-old Roman temple complex. The excavation showed that the area featured multiple religious buildings. The discovery of several votive stones and altars dedicated to various gods and goddesses makes it an exceptional find for the Netherlands and Europe, a press release by the Dutch Cultural Heritage Agency (RCE) stated.

The site lies near the Dutch village of Herwin-Hemeling in the province of Gelderland near the Dutch-German border. The temple complex was situated close to the so-called Limes Germanicus, now a UNESCO World Heritage site. It served as the Roman Empire’s most northern border and was made up of a series of outposts and fortifications. The discovery of the temple complex in the same area has revealed new information about the Roman culture that built the Limes fortifications.

“For the first time, we can reconstruct life in and around a Roman temple here”, explained archaeologist Eric Norde to Dutch newspaper NRC. “Not only did we find this temple, which stood here between the first and fourth centuries, but also well-preserved inscriptional altars, stone carvings, and sacrificial pits. In total, more than 30,000 finds.” For North-Western Europe, the discovery is unique because many temples were demolished or repurposed after the fall of the Roman Empire.

The outlines of one of the temples. Image: RCE

Soldiers and shrines

The site where the temples were found is rather special: it lies at the junction of two large rivers – the Rhine and Waal – near the remains of the Roman settlement of Carvium. On top of a hill stood two, and perhaps more, temples. One of these was a Gallo-Roman commune temple with colourfully painted walls and a tiled roof. A few meters away stood another smaller temple, also with beautifully painted walls.

The shrine has mainly been used by soldiers, stationed near the Limes. Archaeologists concluded this from the many roof tile stamps that were found: the roof tile industry was an army activity at that time. In addition, many parts of horse harnesses, parts of armour, and spear and lance points have been found.

The most spectacular findings were the remains of several dozen votive stones (small altars). They were placed by high-ranking soldiers to fulfil a certain vow. These did not always relate to winning battles. Simply surviving a stay in the most northern regions of the Roman Empire, sometimes far from home, was often reason enough to give thanks. The stones are dedicated to hybrid gods such as Hercules Magusanus, Jupiter-Serapis and the Roman god Mercury. “It’s unique to find so many of them within this region”, said one archaeologist.

Excavating one of the massive votive stones in Herwen. Image: RCE

What’s in a name

Although the first artefacts were discovered in 2021 by local volunteers, archaeologists certainly did not expect to find a complete temple complex so near the Limes. “This is one of the very few Gallo-Roman temples in the military zone of the Limes”, said Ton Derks, professor in Roman archaeology at the Free University of Amsterdam, to NRC. “In England, I only know of the example from Vindolanda, where a temple was discovered in 2002. In Germany, we know of an example near Kalkar. All other sanctuaries with Gallo-Roman temples are in the hinterland of the border region at some distance from the forts on the border.”

Perhaps if archaeologists paid a bit more attention to etymology, they would have figured out that there was a temple complex hiding beneath the earth. According to historical linguist Peter Alexander Kerkhof, the settlement of Carvium is associated by onomastics with the (reconstructed) Germanic word *Harh-wiha, which means ‘temple’ or ‘sacred sanctuary’. The Germanic word already existed in Roman times and later evolved into the current name: Herwen.

This is something specialists are going to feast on for years to come

Tessa de Groot

Now that the excavations have been underway for some time, the first ‘crown’ artefacts will be displayed in a nearby museum in the city of Nijmegen, once founded as a Roman settlement.

Meanwhile, studying all the artefacts and deciphering the texts on the votive stones will take some time. In the upcoming years, the team will get the help of at least 15 specialists that will examine various parts of the site. While the outcomes are yet unclear, RCE archaeologist Tessa de Groot is certain the complex holds a ton of information: “About which units were stationed nearby, but also about how such a temple was maintained”, she told Dutch news agency NOS. “This is something specialists are going to feast on for years to come.”

Source: NOS (Dutch), NRC (Dutch), RCE (Dutch)

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