The discovery of this ancient sacred site was described as “special” no less than seven times in the Dutch archaeologist’s press release. Inside one of the intact Roman temples the excavators unearthed several sacred stones dedicated to a host of different gods and goddesses.
Despite the fact monotheistic religions existed within the territory, such as Judaism and early Christianity, the Roman Empire was greatly a polytheistic civilization. This meant people visited stone temples and outdoor shrines to worship a multitude of gods and goddesses through stone reliefs, statues and rocks that served as altars.
Herwen-Hemeling is an archaeological site in the municipality of Zevenaar, in Gelderland (Guelders in English), a province in the east-central region of the Netherlands. Between the 1st and 4th centuries this region served as the Romans’ front line, and it was at the junction where the Rhine meets the River Waal that in 2021 archaeologists discovered a “relatively intact” sacred Roman sanctuary.
Temple altar stones and pillars being excavated at the site. ( RAAP)
The Start Of Something “Special”
Two years ago a team of archaeologists from RAAP identified the sacred structures in Herwen-Hemeling, near the Danube Limes UNESCO World Heritage site. This 600-kilometer (373 mile) swathe of Holland represents almost the entirety of the Roman Empire’s Danube frontier. And while the stones from most Roman buildings were stripped and repurposed after the collapse of the Empire in the 5th century, for some reason this site was greatly left intact.
According to a recent RAAP press release “several temples” were erected on what the researchers called a “special” site. Since 2021 excavators have unearthed heaps of painted lime plaster, broken statues and carved reliefs depicting a range of gods and goddesses, which they also described as “special.” And so too did they describe their discovery of several complete altars dedicated to various gods and goddesses, as “special”.
Head of a Roman god statue found at the site. ( RAAP)
A Sacred Site Especially For Roman Soldiers
The Romans, like most other cultures, generally built their sacred sites on elevated land. This was equally to avoid flooding as it was to be closer to the gods and goddesses. Not only did the Romans at Herwen-Hemeling build their religious complex on a local elevation but they then raised its height, artificially. Charcoal suggests large sacrificial fires were burned around the mound-top temples, which at night would have made an exceptionally intimidating sight for surrounding tribes.
According to an article in Smithsonian Mag , back in 2021 when archaeologists first began excavating at the site they uncovered “spears, lances, military armor and horse harnesses.” Furthermore, many roof tile stamps were discovered that led to the conclusion that the site was used primarily by soldiers. Overlapping Roman roof tiles are properly known as the “imbrex and tegula,” and builders working with Roman legions always imprinted their legion’s insignia onto the backs of wet clay tiles.
Roof tile stamps indicate that the site was used by soldiers. ( RAAP)
A Valuable Addition To The Limes Story
The archaeologists have so far found evidence of at least two stone temples. The first is a Gallo-Roman temple featuring “colorfully painted walls” and a tiled roof, but the second temple was by far the most spectacular with “beautifully painted walls.” Near the center of this building a particularly large stone was identified that is thought to have served a “special” function, and a stone staircase allowed the worshipers access to water.
Within this sanctuary the researchers found several dozen small altars (votive stones). Each stone was dedicated to one of the three gods: Hercules Magusanus, Jupiter-Serapis and Mercury. Hercules Magusanus was a Romano-Germanic deity, or hero of mythology, that was worshipped during the early first millennium AD in the Lower Rhine region. Jupiter-Serapis was a Graeco-Egyptian deity and Mercury was the messenger god and patron of travelers, merchants, thieves and tricksters.
According to the RAAP press release these deeply-sacred stones had been set in place by high-ranking senior Roman soldiers “fulfilling vows” to their chosen gods. The researchers say these offerings point towards a lot of “migration” occurring at that time because the soldiers who made these votive offerings had worked in Hungary, Spain and Africa, and “they took their gods with them…” Heritage deputy Peter Drenth said Gelderland has unexpectedly gained a special Roman site which he sees as “a valuable addition” to the story of the Romans at Limes.
One of multiple altar stones dedicated to 3 different Roman gods. ( RAAP)
This Ancient Site Is “Special” Seven Times Over
I did a quick count and the RAAP press release uses the word “special” 7 times in relation to the discoveries at this Roman sanctuary in Herwen-Hemeling. This is perhaps justified in that this is not only the most complete Roman religious complex that has ever been found in the Netherlands, but it is full of votive stones and the organic remains of food offerings made to a variety of gods and goddesses.
If all this wasn’t enough to determine that this really is a “special” sacred site, no other Roman temple in the Netherlands has ever yielded such an amount of fragmented limestone sculptures. In fact, the release says the volume of limestone recovered from these two temples “is unprecedented.” But the number one reason this site is regarded as so “special” is because of where it is situated. While the Roman sacred sites of Elst, Nijmegen, Empel and Aardenburg have all been excavated in the Netherlands, this is “the first” temple excavated directly on the border of the Roman Empire (Limes),” the Germanic border of defense where the armies of the ancient Roman Empire drew their line in the sand.
Top image: Relief inscription fragment, God statue and cloak pin found at the extensive Herwen-Hemeling Roman sanctuary site. Source: RAAP
By Ashley Cowie