Senuna was a Celtic goddess worshipped in Roman Britain. She may have been a water goddess local to the region. Perhaps she presided over a sacred spring or was a river goddess.
Senuna was unknown until a cache of 26 votive offerings to her were discovered in 2002 in an undisclosed field at Ashwell End in Hertfordshire by metal detectorist Alan Meek.
Her imagery shows evidence of syncretism between a pre-Roman goddess with the Roman Minerva goddess of wisdom and sponsor of arts, trade and strategy or Fortuna goddess of good fortune and personification of luck.
An initial evaluation excavation was undertaken in March 2003 on a small area around the votive hoard findspot, where geophysics revealed an unusual polygonal enclosure. This exposed a small rectangular chalk platform within an organic soil deposit thought to be a silted-up former springhead. This feature was bounded by a chalk walkway.
During the excavation, significant other finds were made, including a deposit of pig remains with a pipe clay figurine, much fragmentary pottery, oyster shells and many metal objects, including Bronze Age tools and weapons, Iron Age and Roman coins and brooches, and Iron Age mail armour fragments.
Senuna’s shrine consisted of a ritual midden, onto which offerings were thrown, surrounded by a complex of buildings including workshops and accommodation for pilgrims. It was certainly no humble crossroads shrine. The dedicatory artefacts kept in the shrine were subsequently buried together on the edge of the midden, perhaps intended for temporary safe-keeping, in the late 3rd or 4th century CE.
The offerings to Senuna include silver plaques with gold highlights, seven gold plaques and a superb set of jewellery, including a brooch and cloak clasps. The plaques still have the metal tabs which allowed them to be set upright, and are so thin that they would then have shivered and glittered in any draught. Some votive plaques were punched out in tiny holes, some incised. The jewellery incorporated older gems and glass beads, including a superb carved cameo of a lion trampling an ox skull which was already old and worn before it was set into the brooch. All of the jewellery shared intricate decoration in minutely coiled wire, and the set may have been specially made as an offering.
As well as the jewellery, there were deposits of Celtic coins, mostly several centuries old at the time of deposition, and of Bronze Age metalwork, perhaps collected from local round barrows. There were also food offerings of piglets and small quantities of cremated human bone.
The Senuna hoard includes at least five inscriptions. One example reads,
DEAE SENVA[…../ FIRMANVS[…../ V[SLM]
“To the goddess Senua[…..] Firmanus […..] willingly fulfilled his vow.”
Another inscription found on a votive offering of jewellery was left by a man named Servandus of Spain:
“Servandus Hispani willingly fulfilled his vow to the goddess”
This silver figurine portrays Senuna as a graceful woman with hair coiled in a bun. The breast, arms and face of the goddess rotted away in the soil centuries ago. The silver statuette is one of the largest ever found and the jewelry has been made specifically reusing old revered gems.
At least twelve of the votive plaques show classical images of Minerva, with spear, shield and owl but the five of these that carry an inscription are dedicated to Senuna rather than Minerva.
Senuna’s name appears in various forms on the votive plaques, namely Senuna, Sena, and Senua. Conceivably it might be related to the Proto-Celtic *seno- ‘old’.
Some commentators have drawn a parallel between the goddess’s name and that of the river Senua mentioned in the Ravenna Cosmography. This river was located somewhere in southern Britain. Thomas G. Ikins suggests an identification with the River Alde, speculating that the river-name *sen- might have been translated to Anglo-Saxon ald.
The Ashwell hoard of Roman-British temple treasure was an exceptional find which shed new light on the ritual of Roman religion, both in Roman Britain and the wider Roman world.
The hoard comprises some 27 gold and silver objects and was buried in the later third or fourth century AD, evidently in a structured deposit, concealed in a small hole in the ground in a compact and ordered manner. Objects include a silver figurine, a suite of gold jewellery and at least 20 votive ‘leaf’ plaques of gold and silver. Of the plaques, 10 are inscribed, the majority with votive dedications to Senuna.
The objects were precious gifts from individual worshippers to the goddess. They were probably taken out of a temple and carefully buried, perhaps for safekeeping, in the later 3rd or 4th century AD. For reasons we shall never know, they were not retrieved.
The prompt reporting of the hoard allowed a full investigation of its context, both by excavation and other fieldwork. This linked an important find to its archaeological setting, which proved to be equally rich in information.
The results of geophysical survey have clarified the distribution of Iron Age and Roman surface finds by revealing rectilinear (Romano-British) and curvilinear (Iron Age) settlement complexes linked by a road. The hoard had been concealed immediately outside an isolated sub-circular enclosure midway between the settlements.
Excavations between 2003 and 2006 demonstrated that the enclosure was not the shrine of Senuna – which must lie elsewhere, perhaps within one of the settlement complexes – but a ritual site used for feasting and other activity associated with funerary practice from at least the early first century AD to at least the third century AD.