The Roman site was discovered in 1982. The remains were identified by the late Professor Barri Jones as belonging to a multi period Roman springhead water shrine with Celtic origins and a possible continuity into the Early Christian period. Dr Anne Ross the renowned authority on the Celts considered the site had probably been a cult shrine venerating Sabrina the goddess of the river Severn. Bryn Walters, director of the Association for Roman Archaeology, identified the structure as a Nymphaeum and considers it the largest Roman Nympaeum known in Britain. The site overlooking the great horseshoe bend of the Severn was considered by both the late Jones and Ross and also by Bryn Walters, as sensational for its grand outlook, on a scale unsurpassed in Britain if not Europe. Tree growth since the 1980s has obscured much of the river view during summer months. However 300 metres or so along the road to Newnham at the locally famous Pleasant Stile one can marvel at this view.
The horseshoe bend of the river Severn is the largest topographical feature of its type in Europe set in a valley, flanked by the 800 ft high hills of the Cotswolds on the east and the 800 high hills of the Forest of Dean on the west. The Roman site is located near the 600 foot contour at the top of Dean Hill on the eastern flank of the Forest. Immediately to the front of the eastern entrance to the nymphaeum the remains of an artificial platform can still be seen, which Dr Ross identified as the probable Public place for ceremonies of propitiation to the river goddess by huge gatherings watching the Severn bore flooding up river around the 7 miles of the bend.
Dr Ross and Barri Jones also considered the Severn bore and the filling of the horseshoe bend with the flood tide as central to the Cult of Sabrina. When full the horseshoe bend appears in certain lights as a silver ‘torc’ a sacred symbol of the Celts.
The visible Roman remains date from the late 1st or early 2nd century AD, when an earlier water shrine was replaced by a large structure interpreted as a peristyle courtyard surrounding a formal central pool. A large western apse has in situ evidence for an important architectural feature known as an aedicula which possibly housed a statue of the river deity Sabrina. An example of an aedicula is also known from Temple 1 at Springhead in Kent. The stone outlet drain from the nymphaeum pool still survives intact to where the water flowed out into a drainage gulley. Later 4th century modifications may have been associated with a conversion to christianity.
The nymphaeum pool lay directly over the backfilled springhead pool of earlier shrines. The springhead pool was notable for the large collection of flint material found from the late Mesolithic through to the Bronze Ages, as well as deposits of pebbles, fragments of iron arrow heads, ritually bent knives and other metal work dating from the late Iron Age and early Roman period.
Recent targetted excavations since 2018 have produced astonishing proof of the pre Roman importance of the springhead site as a water sanctuary throughout pre history and since the late neolithic period. The artefacts include an exceptional deposit of worked and polished stones of the late neolithic era including axes and ceremonial maces and also enigmatic “sun stones” similar to those found in Denmark and possible female idols. Bronze Age material includes possible early sun idols and whetstones. It is however the remarkable collection of Celtic Heads which sets the site apart in a national context. There are examples of small zoomorphic and anthropomorphic heads to extraordinary head masks stylistically of the 2nd to 3rd centuries BC as well as the 1st century AD.
During the summer and early autumn of 2019 excavation work has been completed to study the water features associated with the earliest pool. A remarkable water channel cut with vertical sides into the natural rock and clay predates the primary springhead pool. Following analysis of the silt samples and finds we shall be able to estimate a date for these features which may be as early as the neolithic period.
Excavations will be brought to an end before the end of October. The remains will then be preserved with new on site interpretation facilities for regular public viewing.