NGR: NY 9987 1030. In 1945 two Roman shrines about 15 metres apart were discovered by a shepherd on the bleak Scargill High Moor, in County Durham, about 3 miles to the south of the Roman fort of Lavatrae (Bowes). Inside these stone structures were altar-stones with inscriptions to the Roman god Vinotonus, also known as Silvanus, who was the god of the countryside, the moorland, the woodland, and animals. The two shrines were built at the western side of the East Black Syke, a stream which runs off the larger Eller Beck, and due to this the little buildings have suffered from erosion from the stream and some of the stonework having been washed away. Both shrines were set-up by Roman officers of the Thracian Cohort who were stationed at nearby Lavatrae (Lavatris). A year after the discovery of the shrines County archaeologists exca-vated and removed the altars and other artefacts, and deposited them in the Bowes Museum. From Gilmonby head S then SE on country lanes to The Rigg, then take the track heading SSE for a few miles to link up with a track heading W and then S onto the moor; this track heads down the East Black Syke beck on the opposite side from where the shrines were discovered. The Bowes Museum is on Newgate in Barnard Castle, while Bowes Roman fort lies under the Castle and St Giles’ Church on The Street in Bowes.
Arthur Raistrick (1972) tells us more about this, saying: “During 1945 two shrines were found on the side of a small stream, East Black Sike, just above its junction with the Ellerback. This is on the wild Scargill Moor about two miles south of the Bowes fort, at NY 998105. One shrine is a small rectangular building 12 ft 8 in. by 6 ft 3 in. inside, with walls 2 ft thick built of partly-dressed grit stones, and still standing in part to more than 3 ft high. The wall towards the stream has been destroyed by erosion. The floor was flagged and the burnt remains of a thatched roof covered it. The second shrine was of similar structure but was circular, 17 ft in diameter. At the middle of the back wall of each was an altar, and in the circular shrine the bases and fragments of six other altars, with some coins and pottery. The altar in the rectangular shrine has an inscription: VINOTONO SILVANO. IVI SECUNDVS COH.I.THRAC. V.S.L.L.M. and this can be translated: ‘To Vinotonus Silvius Julius Secundus Centurion of the First Cohort of Thracians gladly and willingly fulfilled his vow’. The inscription on the altar of the circular shrine can be read: To the God Vinotonus, Lucius Caesius Frontinu prefect of the First Cohort of Thracians from Parma, gladly, willingly, and deservedly fulfilled his vow’.
“Silvanus was the god of the wild uncultivated land and of the wild creatures in it. At Scargill, the first altar identifies him with Vinotonus, the god of stream and place. The altars belong to the early part of the third century and the pottery suggests that the shrines were used intermittently into the fourth century, when the Roman officials felt like thanking the gods for a successful hunt.
Raistrick writing in 1972 adds to the above, saying: “In the wild moorlands of Bollihope, tributary to the Wear valley, an altar was erected to Silvanus Invictus by Gaius Tetius Veturius Micanus, prefect of the Sebosian cavalry regiment, who gave thanks ‘after catching a lovely boar which previous hunters had hunted in vain’. In Weardale at Eastgate (the gate-house of the Bishop of Durham’s hunting park some centuries later), Aurelius Quirinus, a prefect of the first cohort of Ligonians, and commandant at Lanchester, erected an altar to Silvanus between A.D. 234 and 244. It may well be that natives found employment or were con-scripted into the hunt, driving, carrying, tending horses, and acting as general followers, or possibly by their local knowledge and skill contributing to the success of the hunt.”
Richmond (1963) tells us that: “More romantic relics of ancient hunting are the shrines of Silvanus which sprang up in lonely cloughs on the high moors of the Pennines. These were erected by the commandants of Roman forts, wealthy men, mostly on the first rungs of their careers in the Imperial Civil Service, to commemorate successful hunting expeditions. Two are attested by altars only: one stone dedicated by Aurelius Quirinus, commandant at Lanchester (Co. Durham) and found at Eastgate in Weardale; the other erected by Sibinianus, commandant of a cavalry regiment, in remote Bollihope, ‘after catching a lovely boar which previous hunters had hunted in vain’. The third, boasting both altars and shrines, lay higher still, on the Eller Beck, south of Bowes (Yorkshire), 1,275 feet above sea-level. There the local commandant, Caesius Frontinus, and one of his centurions set up separate shrines to Vinotonus, a stream-god whom the centurion identified with Silvanus. The temples were simple structures, one round and the other rectangular, with stone walls and thatched roofs. Their ruins still half buried the altars when they were first observed by a shepherd.”
More recently a flat stone, possibly a Roman tablet, was found in the East Black Syke stream near the shrines, but this was without any inscription, or maybe it has been eroded away by the water. Other fragments of stones and altars from the two shrine structures were deposited into the Bowes Museum, although some of them were probably washed down the stream.
Sources / References & Related Websites:-
Johnston, David E., Discovering Roman Britain, Shire Publications, Princes Risborough, Buckinghamshire, 2002.
Raistrick, Arthur, The Pennine Dales, Arrow Books Ltd., London, 1972.
Richmond I. A., The Pelican History of England — Roman Britain, Penguin Books Ltd., Harmondsworth, Middlesex, 1963.
Copyright © Ray Spencer, The Journal of Antiquities, 2021.