Ancient Surrey temple shows Celts were tree-worshippers

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ANCIENT BRITONS really were a bunch of tree-huggers, according to new archaeological evidence in Surrey.

Confirming claims by the Romans that our ancestors worshipped trees, a dig at a 2,000-year-old Celtic religious complex in Wanborough, near Guildford, suggests that in the late Iron Age the main focus of religious veneration for local tribespeople was a large tree - probably an oak.

It is likely that the tree formed the central feature of some sort of sacred grove. Other evidence from the British Isles and Europe has indicated that the Celts particularly venerated the oak, the yew and the ash.

Priests' head-dresses found in a previous excavation bear emblems of the Celtic sky god Taranis, the Celtic version of Jupiter - a deity closely linked with oak trees.

The Ancient Britons venerated trees for many reasons - their longevity, their apparent annual death and rebirth, and their seeming ability to inhabit both the underworld, through their roots, and the sky, through their height.

The Wanborough oak was probably positioned at the heart of a sacred grove or enclosure, and may well have been the place where tribal chiefs were inaugurated, where fertility rituals were carried out and where animal sacrifices were performed.

Following the Roman Conquest, continental architecture and other cultural ideas were introduced into Britain, and the open-air religious complex centred on the sacred tree was replaced by a circular temple in a Gallo- Roman style with flint and clay walls, a tiled roof and a wooden floor.

The sacred tree was removed but its site remained important, with the entrance passage of the temple deliberately aligned towards its position.

Votive offerings to the gods, including the largest hoard of Celtic coins ever discovered in Britain - 10,000 coins found in the mid-1980s - were interred nearby.

This is only the second early Romano-British circular temple to be found. The excavations, directed by archaeologist David Williams and funded by Surrey Archaeological Society, have shown that the building itself was 11.5 metres in diameter and was probably more than 10 metres high.

Excavations at the site, including the Gallo-Roman round temple, have just been completed. "We were thrilled to discover this building because it is only the second temple of its type ever found in Britain," said Mr Williams.