Archaeologists find statuette head of northern goddess at Arbeia Roman fort

By Ben Miller | 08 October 2014

An early 3rd century head could have been a statuette of the northern goddess worshipped by South Shields tribespeople

A photo of a small stone statuette head carved into the face of a goddess
A shrine to the northern goddess, Brigantia, may have been built close to Arbeia fort© Tyne and Wear Museums
The small, finely-carved female head is the latest find in a productive season at the heart of South Shields, believed to date from 1,800 years ago and notable for her eyes, nose, mouth and hairstyle, with a face painted pink and a trace of red on her lips.

Her mural crown symbolises a town wall, indicating the protective goddess worshipped by the tribe living in the region during Roman times.

“This head from a statuette has appeared,” says Nick Hodgson, the Project Manager of the WallQuest community archaeology project.

“One of the community volunteers found it, digging out the backfill of a feature which may be a drain or possibly an aqueduct channel – we’re not quite clear which.

“It heads off out of the area that we’re excavating. We know pretty much when it was filled in – we’ve got a good grasp of that part of the chronology on the site.

“It was about AD 208, when the Emperor Septimius Severus came and turned South Shields into a supply base. We’re pretty certain of that.

“The head has broken off. It’s very small – about four inches high.”

Although the precise identity of the goddess is unclear, the team are speculating that it is Brigantia. An altar dedicated to the northern deity was found within 100 metres of the latest discovery in 1895.

“She was the local tutelary goddess for upland northern England, tied in with the Brigantes tribe,” explains Hodgson.

“She could be another goddess or what is known as a genius – a local protecting spirit to protect any sort of place or location, building or room.

“Sometimes dedications to these local genii take the form of a statuette of a goddess, so it could just be that.”

Another version of Brigantia also shows her wearing a crown adorned with battlements.

“That was found near Dumfries in 1731,” laughs Hodgson.

“It shows a goddess wearing a mural crown.

“Like all Roman statuettes, this one would have been garishly painted originally.

“It’s been cleaned but some traces of the paint survive.”

The statuette is the latest find from a section of the dig which has revealed pottery, animal bones and, in a highlight of this summer’s work, a gemstone from a ring carrying an enthroned depiction of Jupiter.

Conservators will spend the winter tending to the artefact. It is expected to go on public display in 2015.

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More from Culture24's coverage of Arbeia:

WallQuest volunteer archaeology project makes two important finds on Hadrian's Wall

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