Dr. Anne Ross considered the remains identified in 1984 by Professor Barri Jones as a spring head water shrine was probably a cult shrine to the river goddess Sabrina, from whom the river was named. Bryn Walters of the Association for Roman Archaeology has always argued for the site being a huge British nymphaeum. Any serious academic who has visited the site has gone away with the view of the Severn horseshoe bend etched in their mind. Bryn Walters in 1985 considered the site “The most splendid location for a Roman monument in Lowland Britain.” Even today 35 years later he recalls the shivers that went down his spine when he first saw the view. Thanks to Bryn targetted excavations over the last few years have brought a better understanding of the site and the its significance in the Roman and prehistoric record of Britain.
Through the knowledge and experience of individuals not so readily accessible in 1985 we are now in a position to identify and re assess the remains with greater confidence. A nymphaeum is well defined by Wikipedia as “a monument consecrated to the nymphs, especially those of springs”. The extraordinary Temple of Minerva Medici is in fact a nymphaeum of Imperial Rome and the magnificent nymphaeum of Jerash sometimes referred to as the nymphaeum temple demonstrate the confusion in terms. At Littledean we now have growing evidence for a late 4th century nymphaeum whereby the internal roofed structures of the period 3 temple built circa 160-180 were all removed and the outer walls became the enclosing courtyard wall of a large nymphaeum, with the period 3 pool at its centre. The surviving foundations of contemporary wall niches may indicate that the walls had a number of similar niches around their circumference for the placing of statuary. Whether the earlier period 2 and period 3 temples can be identified as nymphaea seems increasingly unlikely. Analysis of the west end with its aedicule located in the apse has become more certain with the discovery in 2020 for a piped water feed to the aedicule which probably fed a water basin at the feet of the cult statue. Water overflowed into a drain crossing below the apse floor probably to a drainage gulley outside the west wall of the apse. Although the apse and aedicule of the period 3 temple may be defined as a nymphaeum the central pool is perhaps more correctly the sacred healing focus.The large central pool of the period 3 temple was fed from outlying springs through a system of conduits, settling tanks and possibly leaden pipes. The well preserved stone drain is now recognised as the method by which the pool was seasonally cleaned and not the overflow. A picture is slowly emerging for a nymphaeum of considerable complexity consecrated to the nymph Sabrina and her attendants.