The Romans were prolific builders and the ruins of their structures are still to be seen throughout their former Empire. Amphitheaters, roads, temples and of course shrines to the gods graced the cities.
A remarkable Roman shrine dedicated to the goddess Minerva exists in Cheshire, England. It is the only known monument of its kind in all of Western Europe still in its original location which happens to be an area with a great deal of history.
The Origins of Minerva’s Shrine
The shrine dates back to the zenith of the Roman Empire in Britain, the 2 nd century AD, when they dominated most of the island and the local population had become largely Romanized. The shrine was built on a main road that linked the major legionary fortress at Deva (modern Chester) to the south. Many soldiers, travelers, and merchants used this road which was one of the most important in Ancient Britain.
The shrine was carved into the face of a sandstone quarry where extensive remains of Roman mining can be seen. The requirement for building stone increased significantly when the Romans conquered Britain and generated the first major quarrying industry to be developed in England.
The shrine was located not far from the Roman bridge that spanned the River Dee. The original structure has long since collapsed, but the 19 th-century bridge has beautiful medieval features.
As Minerva was the Roman goddess of war, knowledge, learning, craftsmanship and the arts, she was seen as an important protector of the Romans working in the quarry.
The shrine was possibly built or at the same time as the the construction of the bridge when crossing the River Dee was dangerous. Her shrine was used by travelers who would have made offerings to the goddess for a safe river crossing and as protection against bandits.
The Roman shrine to Minerva could also have been dedicated to a Celtic Goddess . In Ancient Britain, there was a great deal of religious syncretism.
The shrine fell into disuse after the withdrawal of the last Roman legions from Britain in 410 AD and as the island became Christianized. The shrine may only have survived the Middle Ages because it was believed to be an image of the Virgin Mary.
The monument stands in a field known as Edgars Field, named after an Anglo-Saxon king who assembled the local monarchs to swear loyalty to him in the 10 th century AD. This association with the Anglo-Saxon king may also have helped to preserve the shrine.
It was only in the 19 th century that local antiquarians acknowledged its importance and a stone structure was built around the shrine to preserve it. Since then there has been little conservation work done on the feature despite it being listed by English Heritage as a grade 1 structure.
The Owl and Sword of Minerva
The ancient shrine is carved into a niche on face of a rocky outcrop that juts out into the middle of Edgars Field. A 19 th century stone frame with a hood partially protects the structure. Even though a natural feature was adapted to house and protect the shrine, wind, rain and vandals have led to erosion and partial destruction.
Elements of the original figure can still be seen, such as the outline of the goddess holding a spear. An owl, which was one of the symbols of the goddess sits on her right shoulder. In Roman times Minerva’s characteristic war-like clothing -helmet, spear and shield – together with her symbol of an owl would have been clear and most likely painted.
This structure is almost 4 feet (1.45m) tall and just over 2 and ½ feet (0.73 m) wide. Next to the shrine is an opening into the rock face which is known as ‘Edgar’s Cave’. This was possibly a natural fissure that was enlarged after the shrine was cut.
Visiting Minerva’s Shrine and the Archaeological Wonders of Chester
The site is located not far from the center of Chester. No entrance fee is charged, and information panels are displayed in Edgar’s Field. It’s wise to plan a few days in this incredible city as there are many fascinating attractions dating back to the Roman era as well as other historical places of interest.