The Goddess Minerva
Along with Juno and Jupiter, Minerva was one of the three most important deities of the Roman state (the ‘Capitoline Triad’). She is believed to be of Italian origin, but from the second century BC at least she was equated with the Greek goddess Athena. She was the patron of wisdom, justice, strategy, the crafts and trade.
Minerva is depicted in a variety of ways, but she is often shown carrying a spear and shield and wearing a helmet with a long plume. Her sacred creature was Athena’s owl, representing wisdom.
The Handbridge Shrine
Some of the details of the Chester relief are unclear because they are so weathered. The goddess is shown wearing a long, high-belted tunic. The form of her headgear is uncertain. She holds a spear in her right hand and possibly a shield in her left. An owl is perched on her left shoulder and there is an altar to her right. The stylised temple in which the goddess stands is gabled and has plain Doric columns.
As the patroness of crafts, Minerva was an appropriate goddess to be depicted in a quarry. The relief may have been carved while quarrying was in progress, on a rock face that had been set aside for the purpose, or as a thank-offering to the goddess, marking the end of operations. It is of interest that a late second- or third-century altar found in Bridge Street Row (East) and now in the Grosvenor Museum was dedicated to Minerva by Furius Fortunatus, ‘senior master’, probably of a guild (RIB 1, 457; Henig 2004, no 12).
The relative dating of the carving and niche is not known, but it seems unlikely that the right-hand column of the temple would originally have been omitted, as it appears today. A niche may have existed in antiquity and served as a place for offerings. If it was enlarged in post-Roman times, part of the relief could have been lost as a result of the rock being weakened.
Depictions of deities carved into the solid rock are very rare in Roman Britain. Two other examples come from Northumberland and are thought to show the native god Cocidius. One, known as ‘Robin of Risingham’, near the fort of that name, shows the lower half of a figure dressed in a tunic and cloak and holding a bow and a hare, with an altar by his side; it was partly destroyed in the eighteenth century (National Heritage List for England 1012133). The other, above North Yardhope in the valley of the Holystone Burn, Upper Coquetdale, is a miniature figure, naked apart from a cap and carrying a spear and shield, at the entrance to a natural chamber in the rock apparently modified for use as a shrine (National Heritage List for England 1018943). The choice of the Roman goddess Minerva and her depiction in a classical style at Chester reflect the culture of the legionary fortress.
The figure may have survived the Middle Ages because it was thought to be an image of the Virgin Mary or one of the saints. By the eighteenth century the niche was known as Edgar’s Cave, after the Saxon king who was rowed on the River Dee in AD 973. Edgar also gave his name to the field and was said to have had a palace there, although William Stukeley thought that the supposed palace was more likely to have been the residence of a Roman commander. The Chester antiquary Dr William Cowper thought that the ‘ruinous house of the Earl of Chester’ marked on an Elizabethan map lay on the site of the palace. According to Thomas Pennant the remains of ancient buildings in Edgar’s Field were marked by hollows visible in the ground. Traces of buildings have been found during excavations, but their character is uncertain.
The carving was said to be ‘very much decayed’ when first recorded by Horsley in 1732. The sandstone surround was added in the nineteenth century to protect it and was originally fronted by iron bars.
History of Research
Information and opinions about the shrine up to the late nineteenth century were summarised by W Thompson Watkin in his Roman Cheshire of 1886. It was most recently described and illustrated, with a list of earlier publications, by Professor Martin Henig in 2004 (see also CHER 8449/1).
The remains of Roman quarrying in Edgar’s Field were first discovered in front of the shrine by Professor Robert Newstead during excavations in 1923 and more widely during his observation of the digging of a sewer trench across the field in 1927 (published in Journal of the Chester Archaeological Society in 1928; summarised in CHER 8449/2). A stone feature found beneath the quarrying debris in front of the shrine in 1923 has been interpreted as a temporary hearth (CHER 8449/3). The possible footings of a Roman building were also found in the sewer trench, and more building remains were found during a watching brief on two sewer trenches in 1996 (CHER 8450, 8451, 8452). Overlying cultivation soils found in 1923 and in 2009 are thought to show reuse of parts of the quarry that had been backfilled by the third century AD (CHER 8381).
Sandstone has been quarried over the centuries at various sites in Handbridge in addition to Edgar’s Field, and the rock faces can still be seen today. Quarrying in the fifteenth century is recorded at Tentray Hay fields upstream of the Old Dee Bridge and in the nineteenth century at the junction of Handbridge and Queen’s Park Road (CHER 11376; 14311). There may have been Roman quarrying on the site of Queen’s Park High School (CHER 14923). Quarry faces can also be seen along the riverbank near Westminster Terrace (CHER 11379). Because of this later quarrying in the area, we cannot be sure exactly what the landscape around the shrine looked like in Roman times.
Charlton, D B & Mitcheson, M M Yardhope: a shrine to Cocidius? Britannia 14, 1983,143–53
CHER Cheshire Historic Environment Record. http://www.cheshirearchaeology.org.uk/
Cowper, W Il penseroso: an evening’s contemplation in St John’s churchyard, Chester. London: Longman, 1769, 8–9
Henig, M Roman sculpture from the northwest Midlands. (Corpus Signorum Imperii Romani. Great Britain I (9)). Oxford: Oxford University Press for the British Academy, 2004, no 11
Horsley, J Britannia Romana or the antiquities of Roman Britain. London: Osborn & Longman, 1732, 316 and 192, n 67, iv
Newstead, R Records of archaeological finds at Chester. J Chester Archaeol Soc new ser 27 (2), 1928, 59–162, especially 103–8, 146–9 and pls x, xxv
Pennant. T Tours in Wales 1. London: Wilkie & Robinson,1810, 154–5
Roach Smith, C Notes on Roman remains at Chester. J Brit Archaeol Assoc 5 (3), 1849, 207–33 (page 215)
RIB 1 Collingwood, R G & Wright, R P The Roman inscriptions of Britain 1: inscriptions on stone. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1965
Stukeley, W Itineraria curiosa. Ed 2. London: Baker & Leigh, 1776, illus 67 and 33–4
Watkin, W T Roman Cheshire, Liverpool: privately published, 1886, 197-200
For further interest:
Visit the Friends of Edgar’s Field website.