Discover the hidden temple at Brean Down
Ancient field systems and the archaeological remains of a Roman temple lie near the steps on Brean’s south side.
Where is the Roman temple?
Few people know that when they walk across the top of Brean Down that they are walking over a Roman temple. It is on the top of the first high point you see when you have climbed up the concrete steps.
There is nothing to see there now, but it lies just below the ground between the path and the mound of a round barrow. This barrow, known as ‘The Potter’s Mound’ was where an important person in the Bronze Age was buried, long before the Romans came and built their temple here. The dip in the top of the mound shows that the contents of this barrow were dug out long ago.
What happened to the Roman temple?
The Roman temple was completely excavated in 1958 (the finds from this dig are in Weston-Super-Mare Museum). This excavation revealed that the temple seems to have been little used after it was built around the year 340. Very few objects were found by the archaeologists.
Around the year 390 it was completely pulled down by the Romans themselves, and the stone carted away. From some of the stone a small hut was built beside the round barrow. This could be evidence of a change of religion in the area to Christianity. The hut could have been for an early Christian hermit of the same generation as St Patrick, who would have lived a simple life of prayer in this exposed windswept place.
What did people do there?
Roman temples are places where you would go to ask for something. You would approach a statue of a god or goddess in a dark room lit by oil lamps. You would have an offering of money, jewellery, food or drink, in the hope that the spirit of this place would answer your wish.
Some Romans wrote down what they offered, and what they wanted in return, on a small piece of lead. These objects archaeologists call ‘curses’ as sometimes they can ask for the god or goddess to punish someone “whether man or woman, slave or free” who has done them wrong.
Only one lead curse has been found at Brean, and it was on the beach. The writing on it was worn, but it does tell us that this temple was dedicated to a goddess, but not which one.
Who was the goddess?
It has been suggested that it might have been the goddess of the river Severn, the source of the waters which churn around the down. To the Romans she was known as Sabrina, but her Celtic name was Hafren.
One Celtic story goes that there were three river goddesses high in the mountains of Wales. The first wanted to take the most direct route, and so the river Ystwyth ran westward to the sea. The second loved valleys and hills, so she carved a route south to the sea and made the river Wye. The third wanted to explore and meet people, so her river, the Severn, roams for 180 miles through cities, towns and villages, before reaching the sea. Each did things their own way. Such is often the case with sisters.