Temples and Suburbs


Excavations at Tabard Square, Southwark

Douglas Killock, John Shepherd, James Gerrard, Kevin Hayward, Kevin Rielly and Victoria Ridgeway, 2015.

PCA Monograph 18

Winner of the 2016 London Archaeological Prize

ISBN 978-0992667252


Excavations at Tabard Square in 2002 have transformed perceptions of Londinium’s ritual landscape and refined our understanding of Southwark’s prehistoric and Roman topography. Hearths and associated scatters of worked flint attest to the temporary camps which characterised Southwark’s channel edges from Late Glacial or early Post-Glacial times.

Set between Borough Channel and Watling Street, the approach road to Londinium from ports to the south-east, the site occupies a strategic location adjacent to the Roman crossing point across Southwark’s islands to the settlement on the north bank. Following extensive drainage and reclamation the earliest buildings here were domestic structures of clay and timber, well-appointed and with finely-executed painted plaster schemes.

But it is as the location of a major temple complex that this site is best known. The mid second century saw a transformation of the landscape as domestic buildings were levelled and a large gravelled precinct constructed, with two Romano-Celtic temples, numerous plinths, altars and columns. An inscribed marble plaque suggests that at least one of these buildings was dedicated to Mars Camulus.

The complex was modified and embellished through time, a dividing wall and possible portico were constructed in the third century, setting each temple building within its own precinct. By the fourth century the precinct had contracted to a small enclosed area, with an enigmatic winged building set to the south-east.

Amongst the finds recovered from the ditch defining the precinct’s eastern extent were numerous, deliberately punctured, complete flagons and other vessels. One of two tin-alloy canisters found contained a greasy preparation, most probably used for lightening the complexion, still bearing the finger marks of its last user.

  1. Simon Esmonde Cleary (LAMAS)

    At over 1ha in extent the Tabard Square excavations comprised one of the largest single areas ever excavated under modern conditions in Southwark. The Roman-period deposits had been seriously compromised by later, largely modern, intrusions which left the stratigraphy badly fragmented and made the comprehension of plan and sequence difficult. The excavators and the various authors, led at all stages by Douglas Killock are to be congratulated for salvaging as much as they have. Congratulations are also due to Pre-Construct Archaeology for making possible a volume with such high production values in the clarity of the layout and the consistent use of colour for plans and photographs. This publication has been awarded The London Archaeological Prize for 2016 by London Archaeologist.
    The site lay north-east of the junction of Watling Street with Stane Street and on the south side of the Neckinger Channel at its eastern end, more or less opposite the junction with the north-south-Guy’s Channel, both tidal. It was thus well-placed for both riverine and terrestrial routes. The area of the site included a south-east to north-west palaeochannel debouching into the Neckinger Channel, but by the start of the Roman period filled with peat. The earliest Roman activity took the form of quantities of timber posts and stakes driven into the southern edge of the palaeochannel at its north-western end. This activity was succeeded at the turn of the 1st and 2nd centuries by the dumping of material to level up the site, providing a dry platform. Onto this was laid out a ditch, succeeded by a metalled road running northeastwards to the shore of the tidal channel with timber buildings to either side, but more particularly to the north-west. The second half of the 2nd century saw all this swept away, the road in due course suppresses, and the area taken over as the precinct for two sanctuaries of ‘Romano-Celtic’ form within a ditched precinct. In the third century the area at the northwest end of the site was embellished with three substantial rectangular foundations, very possibly for statues or other monuments standing between the sanctuaries, possibly with a fountain. The precinct was then divided longitudinally in two, separating the areas of the sanctuaries. On this line was later constructed a substantial masonry foundation, whose plan recalls that of some of the monuments adorning the temple precinct at Bath. In the 4th century the southern sanctuary passed out of use and in the northern precinct was constructed a masonry structure in the form of a ‘winged corridor’, perhaps again a substantial architectural and/or sculptural composition. The disuse of the southern temple need not be read as ‘decline’, even less some sort of retraction of ‘paganism’, but rather as change, with the embellished northern sanctuary becoming dominant. The complex seems to have passed out of use in the first half of the 5th century.
    Two finds from the site are already deservedly well-known. One, from the ditch defining the religious precinct and deposited in the later 2nd century, is the tin-alloy canister containing the remains of a cosmetic based on animal fat with tin oxide, a pale foundation preparation. From the same ditch in the third century came another similar but empty canister. The other major find was an inscription on marble set up by Tiberinus Celerianus, a moritix, a seafarer, from Beauvais in Gallia Belgica.
    The general discussions seek to link the fortunes of Tabard Square to those of Roman London more generally, and are in general judicious and thought-provoking, adding considerably to the value of the publication. Perhaps more could have been made of the immediate setting of the temple complex. The reconstruction offered in fig.4.8 does make the point that the northern sanctuary stood close to and visible from the Neckinger Creek, the major water route. Was it the sanctuary of a fluvial or marine deity, which might explain why a Gaulish moritix chose to set up his inscription in its vicinity? What of the relationship to Watling Street, only 100m or so to the north-west. Were one to turn the possible statues or monuments at the north-western end of the site through 180° then rather than looking into the precinct they would face worshippers arriving from the major land route. Was there some sort of formal approach or processional way linking highway and religious precinct? The discussions also make the important point that for all the hundreds of excavations in and around the walled Roman city over the last nearly half-century, there is remarkably little evidence for religious structures either north or south of the river; the Tabard Square complex is in fact a key site. Finally, functions changed and buildings came and went on this peripheral site. The temple complex was an entirely Roman-period creation, responding to the needs of that period and with no pre-Roman origins. The clearance of the site and its imposition into the landscape of Southwark suggest the exercise of a significant measure of authority. At the end of the Roman period the needs that created and sustained this sort of religious manifestation ceased, so therefore did the complex.

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