The Greetland Altar

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.

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Published in: on June 11, 2010 at 18:53  Comments (11)  
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11 CommentsLeave a comment

  1. Hummm … I grew up, and now live, in this area and I wonder if “behind Thick Hollins/Bank Top” is actually quite a fair way behind it.

    Reason I say this is that there’s a funny place in the woodland well behind Bank Top, and not what you’d call Clay House either, where the land slopes quite sharply at one side to end up down at the railway line. There’s a lot of large pieces of stone in a heap pretty much in the middle of nowhere really, and I’ve always felt something might have once been there, though it is so far back from the fields at bank top, and so hidden, that I can’t see there ever having been a house or a farmer’s pen there.

    The place would make sense in light of “in the toppe of an hill whereunto there is no ascent but of one side”.

    • Thanks Alex, that’s very interesting information. One of the complaints which arises regularly in articles on this subject is that nobody knows precisely where the altar was originally discovered and it’s entirely possible that subsequent excavations which have failed to uncover further Romano-British artefacts may simply have been looking in the wrong place.

      • Well, my dad always told me about that horde of Roman gold someone found up in some caves up towards at Hebden Bridge (I have an odd memory it is something to do with Scouts, but I forget the link). I’ll have to get more information from him sometime.

        It’s a funny thing really. I’ve heard tales of an Anglo-Saxon settlement up by Oxygrains, and with the Roman road and everything, it does make you wonder why the archeology has always been so poor in the Calder Valley.

    • I lived at Bank Top Farm from 1947 to 1963 and knew the farmland and the area very well.We farmed the land behind right to the wood top and although we only ploughed the odd 2 or 3 fields out of 11, I don’t remember anyone finding a thing of interest. Each field had a name and at the very end of Collin Moore Lane in between our two last fields, there was a ginnel that led to the wood top (North Dean Woods) and the path went either left towards Simcocks land or right ,through the woods and back down to Clayhouse and Dean End. As you came to the end of the ginnel you could jump down onto an enormous rock , we called it The Big Rock and there was an opening beneath if you leaned over the edge to look. I never ventured into this crevice, but I remember a boy from school once went missing and after days was found inside these rocks. Is this the place you mean Alex ?

      • Hiyah
        that’s really interesting my family the Fairbanks currently live at Bank top farm and have found some Roman coins My daughter is at Greetland school and researching the history of Roman and at Bank Top a Roman font was found so we are are hoping to gather some information. Yours Eliza Fairbank

  2. It was at Scout Rock above Mytholmroyd in 1952, a hoard of over five hundred silver Roman coins. I suspect the archaeology is so poor in Calderdale simply because of the sheer expense of mounting excavations. There are far more significant places around the country which have still never been properly excavated. Plus, I imagine a lot of the archaeology in the valley itself will have been destroyed by development over the centuries. The tops might be a different matter. Certainly Midgley Moor, for instance, is littered with prehistoric remains.

  3. Hi my grandad has lived at bank top ever since and I’m really interested in finding out where the alter was found so I could try metal detect the area. Can anyone help

    • Hi James, From what Alex said (the first post) it sounds as though the altar was found very close to the wood top. Where did you find the coins ? Maybe you should be using your metal detector there . Regards , to your Grandma and grandad.. Sandra Carr (nee Holroyd)

    • Hi James,
      I went to school with John Fairbank, I also have a metal detector, maybe we could join forces and detect together, you never what is under the ground.

  4. The original name for the lane was Thick Hollins Moor Lane. When transcribed from the 1854 Ordnance Survey map it was wrongly named Collins Moor Lane. Perhaps the chap had the map folded over?

  5. My grandparents lived on Ashfield Terrace for over 70 years up to the late eighties…….my grandad was Stanley Thornber and his father (my great grandfather) set up nurseries at the back of Ashfield Terrace (known as the wreck and now a housing estate) at the turn of the last century. Grandad found several roman coins whilst digging the land (I understand from my mother that these were subsequently traded in the Greetland Liberal Club circa 1970) and never reported. However he did once remark that he knew that there were deep foundation stones at the back of the old greenhouses and what his father had told him was an ancient well…….at the time I never gave the matter any attention but I have always wondered what happened to those coins!


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