The temple complex
At the heart of Springhead, at the head of the River Ebbsfleet, was a pool fed by eight natural springs, an unusually large number that made the site sacred to the Celts, who began settling there around 100BC. They called the site Vagniacis (‘the place of marshes’). Excavation revealed a 600-metre ceremonial way, sacred pits filled with animal remains and pots, as well as numerous coins.
The Romans were also drawn to the site’s religious significance after they invaded in AD43, though their first aim was to make sure their occupation was secure – they built what seems to have been a supply base at Springhead, reached by a road from the River Ebbsfleet. But the fact that the base was used only briefly, and no fort was built, suggests that Kent did not resist the invasion strongly.
It was not a military connection that made Vagniacis so important, but religion and trade. The Romans connected the area to the rest of the country when they put one of their famously straight roads, Watling Street, from Dover to London, right through Vagniacis (its route was directly underneath Wessex Archaeology’s site office).
This would have brought to Vagniacis both travellers wanting to rest on their journey between the capital and the coast, as well as pilgrims attracted to the springs. We see this in the archaeological evidence for a succession of buildings put up on the side of the road, culminating in a stunning complex of perhaps as many as a dozen temples established in the late 1st century AD.
By the end of the first century AD Vagniacis had a population of perhaps 1,000-2,000 and its central area was about 15 hectares in area (37 acres). Around the sacred pool was a walled sanctuary containing one, possibly two, shrines or temples, a large tree, a tank or bath, a small booth for baking bread, and several sacrificial pits where dead animals and pottery were placed. Overlooking the pool were platforms which may have been put up to allow visitors to view the sacred pool. Near the southern end of the pool was a structure which may have been a guest house where pilgrims were housed.
Strewn on the floors of some of Vagniacis’s temples were votive offerings and religious paraphernalia, including a ceramic figurine of a goddess and a stone altar.
In one temple the bodies of four children were buried: two were headless, probably decapitated after death as part of a religious ritual. In a bakery nearby were 14 other child burials. Whether these were human sacrifices or had simply died from natural causes, we cannot tell. Not far from the pool was a deep shaft filled with ritual deposits inlcuding one human and various animal skulls, perhaps buried there as part of a ritual.
If these were indeed human sacrifices then it tells us that the Celtic influence on Vagniacis was still important, because the Romans disapproved of this practice.
Ten of the Springhead temples were unearthed during earlier excavations from the 1950s to 1980s, but two, including a sanctuary complex, were found by Wessex’s staff. This may be the oldest of the religious structures in Vagniacis.
The complex comprised a central cella or shrine, with a pair of stone columns on the front, set within a temenos (sacred enclosure) which included a portico structure which may have been another shrine or temple. It is not certain to whom the principal shrine or temple was dedicated, but in the now-dry riverbed were found a large number of Roman coins and brooches.
Across the pool from the sanctuary complex was another temple excavated by Wessex Archaeology. This was built of stone, had a central tower and tiled floors, and traces of wall painting survived.
“The town is unique in Britain for its extraordinary complex of temples and shrines and the remarkable finds that have come from them,“ said Phil Andrews, the project officer for Wessex Archaeology at Springhead.
The Roman settlement was not simply religious in nature. This was a place that also provided for the needs of travellers using Watling Street between London and Rochester, Canterbury and Dover as well as those sailing small vessels to and from the Thames via the Ebbsfleet.
Along Watling Street Wessex staff found various buildings including an aisled barn, two smithies, a bakery, a possible dyeing complex, a bathhouse, and at least one roadside shrine at a street junction. The final stage of excavation exposed the 2-4th century AD town waterfront on the west side of the Ebbsfleet.
The temples may have fallen into disuse in the 4th century when the advent of Christianity led to the emperors suppressing pagan sites. But the site’s archaeological importance did not end with the Romans – nearby was found a richly furnished Saxon cemetery dating to AD650-700, with skeletons, buried with jewellery, coins and weapons. This was probably used by villagers from a settlement a few hundred metres away in the valley bottom.
A few dozen pieces of medieval pottery, several silver pennies and a pilgrim’s lead container for holy water testify to activity in the Middle Ages, when the area was still a place where travellers could find shelter and provisions. But in later centuries the road to London diverted farther north and the area fell into disuse. Its fortunes did not revive until the Ebbsfleet was used for the cultivation of watercress in the 19th century, the earliest commercial production in the country.