Romano-British villas, cemetaries and shrines on the tributaries of the River Cam

Following on from my blogs on the naming of the River Rhee and the Senuna shrine near Ashwell, I have been researching  evidence for other local Roman villas and shrines, their possible links with pre-existing Celtic settlements and religious places, adjacent to  tributaries of the River Cam and elsewhere.

Two very useful published sources are Alison Taylor’s surveys of the archaeology of the South West and South East of Cambridgshire (1- see end notes) and the Proceedings of the Cambridge Antiquarian Society, (PCAS), (2).

1. The Linton Cam at Bartlow.

There is now considerable evidence for a significant Romano-British settlement and ritual site adjacent to the ‘Bartlow hills’ – the large conical burial mounds – built in the 1-2 centuries AD. The Roman ‘hills’ themselves may be on the site of earlier Bronze Age mounds, based on the large number of flint tools of that period found during excavations. There is also evidence of a later villa and cemetary nearby the mounds on the other side of the river with an associated bathhouse. This may have had a ritual function, given the large number of votive (?) coins found nearby. The villa at Bartlow was recorded as being quite modest but more wealthy Roman houses have been identified, both about a mile away, near Linton and at Ashdon. There are many Roman sites at Linton itself, close to the river (3).

2. The River Granta or Cam at Gt. Chesterford and Ickleton.

Excavations in the late 1970s and 1980s revealed the existence of a temple building within a  romboid shaped walled precinct 1 km east of the Roman town and fort at Gt. Chesterford, close to the river. A fairly large villa was discovered nearby on the other side of the river in Ickleton (4).

3. The ‘Chronicle Hills’ near the Hoffer Brook, a tributary of the River Rhee, between Whittlesford and Thriplow.

The similarity between this and the Bartlow site has been pointed to by the authors of both reports. Close to the spring line near Nine Wells and Little Nine wells lies an important Roman site including a villa and associated buildings including a possible bath/shrine complex down by the stream. There is a report of the discovery of a female figure, possibly the goddess Minerva (Senuna?).

The ‘Chronicle hills’ themselves were a line of burial barrows running along higher ground adjacent to the  settlement buildings. The barrows were much larger than usual. The middle barrow was said to be 2.8 m high and 24.7 m long. A thick wall of flint and pebbles ran along the side. Further north lay two smaller mounds with deep burials. All the barrows contained inhumations with broken terracotta. The site was occupied between the mid 1st cent. and 4th cent. AD. (5)

4. The Romano-British temple at Gallows Hill, Swaffham Prior.

The temple is situated on the fen edge on a chalk outcrop known locally as Gallows hill, linked by a trackway to a villa near Reach, 1 km away. Nearby ring ditches are a possible site for prehistoric barrows and to the north on the fen edge was an Iron Age settlement and burials. Some evidence points to the temple being founded pre-conquest in the 1st half of the 1st cent. AD, subsequently developing into a larger complex through the 2nd cent AD.  The author references similarities with the Bartlow hills villa/shrine and burial mounds complex; also the large villa site at Litlington built on an elite Iron Age site, looking south to the Limlow hill complex of barrow and enclosure.

The author points to the ‘Romanisation’ of the native Iron Age elite in the region, as existing Catuvelluani domestic settlements, cemetaries and shrines adopt Roman building styles and social and religious customs. We should also add to this list the Senuna shrine and buildings complex near Ashwell, close by an Iron Age settlement and evidence of pre Roman use of the shrine. Again links with the villa and cemetary complex in nearby Guilden Morden are worthy of consideration, given the pre-conquest date of the first burials. (6)


It is interesting to note that all the main tributaries of the Cam; the Ashwell Cam or Rhee, the Linton Cam and the Granta, aswell as subsidiary streams like the Hoffer Brook, provide locations for villa and temple/shrine and burial complexes, which often have a pre- conquest foundation, showing both continuity and development in settlement patterns and social and religious customs.


1. Alison Taylor, Archaeology of Cambridgeshire, vol. 1, the south west; vol. 2, the south east. Cambridge County Council, 1997.

2. Proceedings of the Cambridge Antiquarian Society (PCAS). Published anually. Full set available in the reading room of the Local History Collection at Cambridge Central Library. 

3. Taylor, vol.2, p.18-19; PCAS, XCV111, 2009; Eckardt et al, ‘The Bartlow Hills in context’.

4. Taylor, vol.1, p,73; PCAS, LXXX1V, 1995, T.E. Miller, ‘ The Romano-British Temple at Gt. Chesterford, Essex.

5. Taylor,vol.1, p.109; PCAS, XCV1, 2007, C. Taylor and A. Arbon, ‘The Chronicle Hills….. ‘.

6. PCAS XCV, T. Malim, ‘A Romano-British Temple complex andAnglo-Saxon burials at Gallows hill, Swaffham Prior. See also T. Malim, ‘The Archaeology of the Litlington Area’, in S. Oosthuizen & M. Hesse, (eds.), The S.W. Cambs. Project. Summary Report, 1999-2000. (Available at Cambridge Central Library); , PCAS, XXV11, C. Fox & T.C. Lethbridge ‘The Le Tene and Romano-British cemetary, Guilden Morden, Cambs., PCAS, 1924, XXXV1, T.C. Lethbridge, ‘Further Excavations in the Early Iron Age and Romano-Britsh cemetary at Guilden Morden.


About jonathanspain

My blog reflects my interests in local history in South Cambridgeshire, growing your own food, and walking in the district and elsewhere
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