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Antenociticus

The Benwell Temple

by Louisa Chisholm-Kelly



Deep within a 1930s housing estate in Benwell, Newcastle Upon Tyne, just off The West Road, are the ruins of a small building that was once the short-lived home of a local god called Atenociticus.


You could drive past it, and not realise it was there, let alone its historical significance. The tiny brown sign out on the main road is easily missed, and very few people know anything about the weird little anomaly nestled between the gardens.


Finding it feels like you're stumbling upon a long forgotten secret.


The Benwell Temple lies within the vicus, the civilian settlement outside the walls of a Roman fort called Condercum. Founded in 122-124AD, the fort covers around 5.5 acres, and sits on Hadrian's Wall. The fort held garrisons of the Roman army - including garrisons from Germany and Spain - at various times throughout its life, housing as many as 500 men at a time. It was abandoned sometime in the 5th century.


Very little remains of Condercum Fort; some of it was either destroyed by, or lies underneath, the West Road and Benwell High Reservoir. The rest is underneath the 1930s housing estate, some of which was found recently by Channel 4's The Great British Dig. Just the temple and the nearby vallum crossing (the south bridge entrance to the fort) remain above ground.


The temple was built around 180AD. It was destroyed and burned down just 16 years later. The building was excavated in 1862. It measures 15 feet (4.6 m) from east to west and 20 feet (6.1 m) from north to south. It has a further six foot deep semicircular section, an apse, on the south end. It is believed that this was where a life-sized statue of the god stood. The statue's head was found, together with the fragments of an arm and a leg.


The temple also contained three altars to Antenociticus. According to the carvings on the altar stones, all three were dedicated by soldiers that were likely stationed at Condercum. One was dedicated by a high ranking Roman Cavalry Prefect, Tineius Longus, likely in celebration of a promotion. Some believe that Tineius Longus could have built the whole temple. One was dedicated by a centurion of the 20th Legion, Aelius Vibius, and the other was dedicated by a prefect of the first cohort of Vangiones.


When the temple was excavated three skeletons were found in the apse, buried with their heads to the west, feet to east. It is unknown when they were buried there, although there is evidence that Anglo-Saxon people reused a nearby cemetery.



We know very little about Atenociticus. The Benwell Temple is the only place where he is mentioned, although a similar looking unnamed god head was found at Binchester, in County Durham. The god head found at Benwell has carved hair that curls towards the forehead; some think this resembles horns. He is also wearing a Celtic style neck torc, this suggests that he was a British, or a Romano-British god. With these distinctive features in mind, an academic discussion has arisen around the possibility that Antenociticus is not a Roman god at all, but is an earlier Iron Age god that was introduced to the Romans by the locals, and could be linked to the Celtic god Cernunnos. As there are no known depictions of gods or goddesses from Iron Age Britain, and we have no evidence of their names until the Romans arrived and began to write about the people that lived here, there is nothing to refute this premise. It could be that his temple was destroyed when the Romans decided to go back to the veneration of their own gods. It is also, however, a possibility that Antenociticus was a wholly new god, specifically local to the area, and this is why he fell out of favour after just 16 years.





Unfortunately, unless other discoveries are made, we may never know who Antenociticus was, or why he was seemingly abandoned.


The Benwell Temple is free to visit, but please respect that the site is within a private housing estate. There is on street parking available, but the road can be very busy. It can be reached by bus from Newcastle City Centre. The site has concrete replicas of the altars.


Benwell Temple Address: Broomridge Ave, Newcastle upon Tyne NE15 6QP


While visiting, why not also visit the Vallum Crossing? It's just a 5 minute walk away from the temple.


Vallum address: Denhill Park, Newcastle upon Tyne, NE15 6DF.


If you would also like to see a small part of Hadrian's Wall, the Denton Turret is just another mile further east on the West Road.


Denton Turret address: Turret Road, Newcastle-upon-Tyne, Tyne and Wear, NE15 7TH


All three sites are maintained by English Heritage.


The altar stones and the god’s head are available to see in The Great North Museum, Hancock, in Newcastle Upon Tyne City centre. The museum is free to enter and is the home of many local Roman, Iron Age, Anglo-Saxon and Viking artefacts. It is suitable for all ages.


Museum Address: Barras Bridge, Newcastle upon Tyne NE2 4PT


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