Roman sanctuary revealed in the Netherlands

As well as the remains of the temple buildings, many votive altars, and sculptures, archaeologists also unearthed fire pits with vestiges of sacrifices.

Archaeologists in the Netherlands have revealed a Roman sanctuary with evidence of at least two temples at Herwen-Hemeling, close to the frontier of the empire. The site has yielded numerous votive altars dedicated by high-ranking officers to the gods, fragments of sculptures, and painted plasterwork that together create a picture of a religious hub built and used by Roman soldiers in the area between the 1st and 4th centuries AD.

A fragment of one of the altars excavated at the Roman sanctuary site of Herwen-Hemeling. Image: RAAP

Located at the branching of the Rhine and Waal rivers, the two temples stood on a small natural hill that had been built higher by human hands. The largest was a Gallo-Roman temple, with a smaller temple a few metres away. Both had interiors decorated with colourful frescoes. As excavation manager Eric Norde, from RAAP, explained, multiple gods were worshipped at the complex: Hercules Magusanus (a popular local Batavian deity, who is mentioned in a building inscription), the Roman god Mercury, and the Roman-Egyptian combination of Jupiter-Serapis.

Other temples are known from the Roman Netherlands – such as at Elst, Nijmegen, Empel, and Aardenburg – but the discovery at Herwen-Hemeling is significant for the site’s proximity to the limes (frontier) and its completeness. As well as the remains of the temple buildings, many votive altars, and sculptures, archaeologists also unearthed fire pits with vestiges of sacrifices and a large stone well with a staircase leading down into the water, possibly indicating some special role.

Fragments of sculpture were also found at the site. Image: RAAP

Stamped roof tiles and large numbers of fragments of horse tack, weapons (including spearheads and lances), and armour point to the sanctuary being frequented by soldiers. Other small finds from the site include coins and colourful fibulae.

The many votive altars dedicated to different deities carry inscriptions that also speak to a military presence at Herwen-Hemeling and shed light on some of the individuals who worshipped there. As Norde pointed out, some contain the names and roles of the Roman officers who dedicated the altars, and their legion or cohort, showing that people from across the empire ended up in this northern border area. ‘One clear example is the Cohors secunda Astura, which originates in the northern part of Spain,’ Norde said. ‘Another example is a building inscription which mentions a person  ex Afrika (coming from Africa).’

Finds were first identified at the clay extraction site in the Gelderland province at the end of 2021 by members of the Association of Volunteer Archaeologists, who reported their finds to the Cultural Heritage Agency (RCE). After an initial investigation by the RCE, RAAP carried out a full excavation of the site earlier this year. Some of the discoveries went on display at the Museum Het Valkhof in Nijmegen in June.