Excavations in the Netherlands have uncovered an impressively well-preserved Roman sanctuary, used by soldiers living on the northern edge of the Roman empire from the 1st to the late 3rd century AD.
The site of Herwen-Hemeling was discovered near the village of Herwen, in the province of Gelderland, close to the ‘Frontiers of the Roman Empire’ UNESCO World Heritage Site. The sanctuary sits in a significant location, at the point where the Rhine and Waal rivers diverge, on a natural elevation in the landscape that has been increased by human intervention.
Archaeologists from RAAP Archaeological Consultancy uncovered the remains of at least two temples on the small hill. The first was a Gallo-Roman structure with a tower-like building surrounded by a colonnade, with colourfully painted walls and a tiled roof. The second, located just 35m away, was another small temple, also with vibrantly painted walls. The stamps discovered on roof tiles from these buildings confirmed that the sanctuary was built by soldiers, and other finds suggest the site was almost exclusively used by the military, including fragments of horse harnesses, armour, and the tips of spears and lances. Many other objects were also uncovered, including coins, pottery, and parts of many limestone statues, which helped to date the sanctuary. The excavations unearthed a large well with a decorated stone staircase leading down into it, suggesting that it may have had a religious function connected to the sanctuary. Additionally, a number of hearth pits were identified around the site, which were probably used periodically for large sacrificial fires.
Perhaps the most significant discovery, though, was several votive stones or altars, which are very rarely found in situ in the Netherlands. These stones are exceptionally well preserved, and the engravings can still be read clearly, revealing that they were dedicated to several different deities, including Mercury, Jupiter-Serapis, and Hercules Magusanus (a popular Batavian deity). The votive stones also name the people who dedicated them: high-ranking officers who wished to thank their preferred god or goddess for fulfilling their wishes and protecting them in this distant corner of the Roman Empire. The inscriptions reveal that soldiers stationed here had come from as far away as Africa, Spain, and Italy, and brought their gods with them.
Several Roman sanctuaries are known in the Netherlands, but this is the first to be discovered on the northern boundary of the empire (the Limes). It is unusually well preserved, too: such a complete religious complex has never been found in the Netherlands before. Material from Roman buildings was often reused in later periods, leaving little behind, but this is not the case here, with substantial remains of walls, votive stones, pedestals, and parts of statues still present. The site is also remarkable for the length of time that it remained in use.
The sanctuary is located in the middle of an active clay-extraction site, so it cannot be preserved in situ, but careful laser scans will make it possible to create a 3D model of the site, and the artefacts found here will be placed in the care of the Valkhof Museum in Nijmegen.