In 1597, two workmen by the names of Thomas Miles and Thomas Halliwell dug up a Roman altar behind a house called Thick Hollins (now identified as Bank Top Farm) in Greetland. It was recorded by William Camden in the 1600 edition of his monumental topographical work Britannia, in which he memorably writes “At Greetland in the toppe of an hill whereunto there is no ascent but of one side, was digged up this votive altar.” A contemporary account by John Hanson, an officer of the Manor of Wakefield mentions further “diverse” finds nearby but does not elaborate.
Following its discovery, the altar was kept by local justice of the peace, Sir John Savile, at nearby Bradley Hall for no great length of time, before somehow making its way into the collection of a Cambridgeshire antiquary around 1600 so that by 1732, it was recorded standing neglected in the church at Cunnington in that county. It was subsequently donated to Trinity College at the University of Cambridge and stood in the vestibule of its library until it was moved to its present home at the University’s Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology during the 1960s.
An inscription upon the altar, written in abbreviated Latin as was the custom, reads “To the goddess Victoria Brigantia and to the Deities of the two Emperors, Titus Aurelius Aurelianus gave and dedicated this altar for himself and his family, while he himself was mater of the sacred rites in the third consulship of Antonius and the second of Geta.” This dates the altar to some time between 205 and 208 AD and represents a rare instance of Geta’s name surviving on a monument, for in 212 AD he was murdered by his brother and co-emperor Caracalla and all references to him were effaced.
It is one of only eight altars dedicated to the goddess Brigantia known in Britain, three of which also come from West Yorkshire and the other four from Hadrian’s Wall. Brigantia was the tutelary mother goddess of the Brigantes tribe, the Celtic Britons who occupied most of northern England during the Romano-British period. It was also the name given to their kingdom. Hence, it is certain that the goddess Brigantia would have been the primary deity worshipped by native inhabitants of the Lower Calder Valley during that period, and probably representative of a tradition extending back into the Iron Age.
Although no direct traditions concerning the goddess have survived, here she is associated with the Roman goddess of victory, Victoria, according to a custom known as “interpretario romana”, whereby local deities were incorporated into the Roman pantheon in order to assist the integration of the Empire with native populaces. This suggests a warlike aspect. Elsewhere, however, she is associated with Minerva, indicating she also fulfilled a pastoral and artistic role. It is thought she was also a northern English manifestation of the goddess Brigid, whose legends have survived in later Celtic sources from Ireland.
The discovery of the altar at Greetland has led some commentators to speculate that the area might have been the site of the lost Roman station of Cambodunum. The outpost is mentioned in the Antonine Itinerary, a register of over two hundred roads in the Roman Empire dating from the early 3rd Century AD, as located between Manchester and Tadcaster, although the distances given are erroneous, leaving its precise location mysterious. Some believed it was the fort at Slack, above Huddersfield some three miles south of Greetland, but recent excavations have shown that site had been abandoned by 125 AD.
In his 1732 work, Britannia Romana, John Horsley writes “Such altars as these, I think, are never found but where a Roman settlement has been… The Roman station of Cambodunum… has been upon that rivulet which runs by Greetland bridge into the Calder.” However, Dr. John Watson in his seminal 1775 work The History and Antiquities of the Parish of Halifax disagrees, saying that he has searched the area thoroughly and failed to find any further trace of Roman remains. As Watson was a curate at nearby Ripponden, he would surely have had much opportunity for such investigations.
The controversy has continued to rage over the centuries and it has still not been settled. That successive excavations at Bank Top have failed to uncover any Roman finds indicative of a habitation is frequently cited as evidence against the theory. However, as the historian Donald Haigh points out, Horsley suggests that Cambodunum would’ve stood in the valley below Bank Top at the confluence of the Black Brook with the River Calder, as the junction of valleys near water sources was favoured for such sites, rather than on the hilltop itself. However, at present, no excavation has ever tested this theory.