The Religious Symbolism of Llyn Cerrig Bach and Other Early Sacred Water Sites

by Dr Miranda Green


Llyn Cerrig Bach is arguably one of the mast important ritual sites in Britain belonging to the pre-Roman Iron Age ‘Celtic’ period. This brief paper seeks to present a discussion on both of the site’s intrinsic significance and of its role within the general context of later prehistoric European water-ritual.

The site of Llyn Cerrig Bach consists of a marsh, once a natural lake, which contained a deposit of some 150 objects, many of which were martial in function. These items, which have a date-range within the period second century BC – first century AD, were apparently deliberately cast into the lake as offerings to the supernatural powers. The site of Llyn Cerrig Bach, which is located near the west coast of Anglesey, was discovered during the Second World War in the process of building a military airfield. It was investigated by Cyril (later Sir Cyril) Fox, then Keeper of Archaeology at the National Museum of Wales, and published as a National Museum of Wales monograph in 1946 [1]. The site was discussed in some detail by Frances Lynch, in her survey of prehistoric Anglesey [2]; and much of the metalwork is described by Hubert Savory, in his catalogue of Iron Age antiquities in the National Museum [3].

The important site of Llyn Cerrig Bach, and its finds, are currently the focus of renewed interest, since the Board of Celtic Studies has just appointed a research assistant to make a fresh study of the deposit, with a view to publishing a new catalogue and re-evaluation of the material. This project will be of considerable benefit to Iron Age studies in general, and will contribute significantly to our understanding of ritual water-deposition in late pre-Roman Wales.

The Importance of Llyn Cerrig Bach

The site of Llyn Cerrig consisted of a pool or lake (now boggy ground), edged by a cliff some 11 feet (3.3 metres) high, which would have been a good vantage-point both for gazing at the water and for throwing in offerings. The immediate area is one characterised by rocky outcrops, and forms a relatively dramatic landscape, which may well have evoked numinosity and have therefore inspired veneration in antiquity. The items deposited in the lake include chariot-fittings (presumably once entire vehicles), cauldrons, weapons, shields, tools and two slave gang-chains, showing the excellent craftsmanship of Celtic blacksmiths. Bronzes, such as the crescentic plaque decorated with a triskele/bird motif, represent early Celtic art at its finest [4], and the majority of the metal objects must have belonged to individuals who enjoyed a high rank within their communities. Some of the metalwork may have been brought to the site from as far away as Somerset, or even further afield, implying that Llyn Cerrig enjoyed more than local status as a holy site.

Some of the objects from the water display signs of pre-depositional damage, which appears to have been deliberate and is probably best interpreted as ritual breakage. This practice of destroying or, at any rate, rendering unusable, material destined as offerings to the supernatural world, is well-known in prehistoric and Romano-Celtic Europe as a kind of rite of passage, a means of severing the gift’s associations with the earthly world and of making it acceptable as a spirit-gift or sacrifice [5].

Llyn Cerrig Bach is significant in a number of respects. The deposition of so many prestigious objects in a watery context argues for the presence, at this site, of an exceptionally important centre of religious activity in later Iron Age Wales. There is also the question of whether the choice of an island for a sanctuary is perhaps significant. The Greek geographer Strabo, writing in the later first century BC and early first century AD, comments [6] on a holy island near the mouth of the Loire, inhabited by priestesses; there are many references to sacred islands in the western ocean contained in the early Irish mythic texts, where they are particularly linked with the Otherworld [7]. Of course, several early Celtic Christian saints are associated with islands: the Welsh female saint Dwynwen, who allegedly died in AD 465, is an example [8]. She was a virgin-hermit who built a church on the tiny Llanddwyn Island, off the Anglesey coast.

The site of Llyn Cerrig Bach is of especial interest in its possible association with the Druids. Tacitus [9] chronicles the infamous confrontation between the Roman general Suetonius Paulinus and the Druids of Anglesey in the mid first century AD. Tacitus presents a graphic description of the druidic grove, grisly with the remains of human sacrifices, and the shores of the island guarded by black-clad women who screamed curses at the Romans about to destroy their sanctuary. It is difficult not to speculate as to whether Llyn Cerrig Bach might have been associated with this druidic shrine. A major offering of precious metalwork would be completely comprehensible as a response to the crisis of Roman desecration.

Other Sacred Iron Age Water-Sites

The ritual deposition at Llyn Cerrig Bach was by no means an isolated event, but falls within a widespread European cultic tradition which goes back at least to the Middle Bronze Age (circa 1300 BC). Space permits only a brief glance at some of the most important religious water-sites in Britain and Europe, which serve to place Llyn Cerrig within its cultural context.

In Britain, ritual deposits of precious metalwork were made in rivers, marshes and other aquatic locations [10] during the Bronze and Iron Ages. Rivers such as the Witham and the Thames received swords, daggers, spears, shields and other military equipment over at least a millennium. At Flag Fen in Cambridgeshire, people threw high-prestige metal objects, including swords, into the water at the fen-edge from about 1200-200 BC. Some of these offerings were made in quite deep water and must have been cast in from boats. As occurred at Llyn Cerrig, many of the Flag Fen items had been ritually destroyed [11]. In about 600 BC, the lake-site of Llyn Fawr in Mid Glamorgan was the focus for religious activity; in 1911 and 1912, a hoard of metalwork was discovered in peat which had once formed the bed of a natural lake. The objects cast into the water as offerings included bronze cauldrons, already antique when deposited, and exotic Continental Hallstatt material, imported from Central Europe and including very early examples of iron objects. The cauldrons were locally-made, but some of the other equipment may have been loot from raiding in the English lowlands [12].

Marshes, springs and wells were equally singled out in later prehistoric Britain as foci for ritual. In the very late Iron Age (first century AD), cauldrons were deposited in Scottish bogs, like Blackburn Mill and Carlingwark [13], just as were present at Llyn Cerrig and Llyn Fawr. At Lindow Moss in Cheshire, the body of a young man was placed in a pool within the marsh after he had been ritually murdered, probably during the first century AD [14]. The victim was stripped, poleaxed and garrotted before his painted body was thrust face-down in the water. In my opinion, this is an unequivocal example of a human sacrifice; the young man may have been offered as a gift to the local gods as a response to a crisis, when a major appeal had to be made to the spirit-world, just as has been postulated for the rich deposit at Llyn Cerrig Bach. The Lindow sacrifice may even also have been associated with Roman incursions into north-west Britain.

A number of natural springs and wells attracted religious activity in the late Iron Age, although many such cults may only have come to florescence during the Roman period. Anne Ross [15] has made a study of ritual shafts and wells and, although some doubt can be cast upon the genuinely religious nature of some of these, she has collected some important sites: we may cite the example of Bekesbourne in Kent, where deliberate deposits of whole pots and a circle of horse-teeth had been carefully arranged [16]. At Buxton in Derbyshire, there are two springs  close together on the valley-floor, each containing different mineral properties [17]. The Romans called the site Aquae Arnemetiae (the ‘Waters of Arnemetia’), so there must once have been a local goddess, Arnemetia, who presided over the sacred waters perhaps long before the Roman period.

Prehistoric water-ritual is well represented in Continental Europe, and may be illustrated by a few sites of outstanding importance. In about 1300 BC, a bronze model wagon drawn by a horse-figurine and carrying a gilded bronze ‘sun disc’ was deliberately dismantled and buried in a Danish peat-bog at Trundholm [18], after being used, perhaps, in some kind of solar ceremony. Weather-ritual may also have been behind the occurrence, sometimes from watery contexts, of sheet-bronze vessels mounted on wheels (Keselwagen), drawn by birds or animals in the archaeological record of the later European Bronze Age [19]. It has been suggested that they may have been associated with magical practices concerned with inducing or preventing rain and flooding. Danish Iron Age bog-bodies, like Tollund Man [20] reflect similar aquatic cult- practices to that represented at Lindow Moss; and the great gilded silver cult-cauldron from Gundestrup in Jutland [21] was buried in a watery context, like those at Llyn Fawr, Llyn Cerrig and other British sites. At Duchvoc in Czechoslovakia, people dedicated an enormous bronze cauldron full of jewellery to the deity of the local spring in the third or second century BC [22].

Perhaps one of the most important Continental Iron Age water-sites is that of La Tène, on the shores of Lake Neuchâtel in Switzerland, a site whose wealth of finds (including finely decorated metalwork) has caused it to become the ‘type-site’ after which the material culture of the later European Iron Age has been named [23]. Controversy surrounds the nature of the deposition at La Tène, but it is probable that it was the focus for water-ritual and offerings to the spirit-world.

Near Stuttgart in southern Germany is Fellbach Schmiden, one of a well-documented group of Central European ritual structures known as Viereckschanzen. The site consisted of a square enclosure containing a deep well; preserved in the waterlogged fill was a group of animal-images carved in oak: the felling of the tree has been dated by dendrochronology to the late second century BC [24]. At the interface between the Gaulish pre-Roman Iron Age and the Roman period (first century BC), a shrine was established round a spring and pool at Fontes Sequanae (the ‘Springs of Sequana’) at the Source of the River Seine near Dijon in Burgundy [25]. Pilgrims to the shrine dedicated nearly 200 wooden images of themselves or parts of their bodies to the goddess Sequana. Fontes Sequanae was a healing-sanctuary, the first phase of which was a forerunner of the great curative cult-establishments which grew up in the Roman period at such thermal spring-sites as those dedicated to Lenus at Trier [26] and Sulis at Bath [27]. Visitors to many of these sanctuaries offered to the presiding divinity models of the parts of their anatomy which required healing, in a reciprocal ritual of giving and receiving.

Conclusion: the Significance of Water in Early Ritual

In this short paper, we have examined watery sites which appear, from the evidence of the material associated with them, to have been the focus for religious activity and veneration. In conclusion, we should explore the belief-systems which may have underlain this apparent preoccupation with water. Any discussion must be based partly upon speculation, partly on parative evidence from other cultures, past and present, and partly upon deductions which may be made from the evidence of the aquatic European sites themselves.

Water is a source of life and, as a generative force, it is a focus of veneration for many peoples. In addition, however, it is dangerous and capricious, able to destroy as well as promote life, by flooding crops and homes or drowning animals and humans. Bogs have the added dimension of ambiguity, seemingly harmless but treacherous to the unwary. The element of movement is important in the perception of water as a numinous force: it is easy to envisage a divine presence in the flow of rivers or the welling of spring-water (sometimes hot) from deep underground. Indeed, this emanation of water from the earth must have given rise to perceived links with the internal powers of the Otherworld. In Roman mythology, Hades (the underworld) was reached by means of Lake Avernus [28]. In the early Irish mythic tradition, the Happy Otherworld could be reached by water, a pool, a lake or the sea [29]. This notion of water as a gateway between worlds is linked with liminality, or boundary-symbolism: water was, at one and the same time, a barrier between earth and the supernatural world and, under certain circumstances, a means of access to it.

Finally, we should return to the perception of water as a generative and regenerative force. The attraction of sick pilgrims to water, well-documented by both literature and archaeology in Graeco-Roman and Romano-Celtic religion, is indicative of the belief in the curative powers of springs and wells. Healing is closely linked with purification: the physical and spiritual cleansing properties of fresh water must have been fully acknowledged in European antiquity. The same perceptions caused water to become an integral part of Christian symbolism, an association which has manifested itself very clearly in the veneration of holy wells.



1. C. Fox, (1946); A Find of the Early Iron Age from Llyn Cerrig Bach, Anglesey, National Museum of Wales, Cardiff.
2. F. Lynch, (1970); Prehistoric Anglesey, Anglesey.
3. H. N. Savory, (1976); Guide Catalogue of the Early Iron Age Collections, National Museum of Wales, Cardiff.
4. M. J. Green, (1992); Animals in Celtic Life and Myth, p.130, fig 6.2, Routledge.
5. M. J. Green, (1993); Celtic Myths, British Museum Press, pp.70-71.
6. Strabo, Geography IV, iv, p. 6.
7. P. Mac Cana, (1976); ‘The sinless Otherworld of Immram Brain’, Eriu 27, p. 95-115.M. J. Green, (1992); Dictionary of Celtic Myth and Legend, Thames & Hudson, pp. 16-168.
8. E. Henken, (1987); Traditions of the Welsh Saints, pp. 227-32, Boydell & Brewer, Cambridge.Peter C. Bartrum, (1974); Welsh Genealogies: AD 300-1400, Vol.1, Univ. Wales Press, p. 21.
9. Annals XIV, p. 30.
10. R. Bradley, (1990); The Passage of Arms, Cambridge University Press.A. P. Fitzpatrick, (1984); ‘The deposition of La Tène Iron Age metalwork in watery contexts in southern England’, in B. W. Cunliffe & D. Miles (eds.), Aspects of the Iron Age in Central Southern England, Oxford University Committee for Archaeology Monograph No.2, pp. 178-190.
11. F. Pryor, (1990); ‘Flag Fen’, Current Archaeology,119, March 1990, pp. 386-90.F. Pryor, (1992); Flag Fen: Prehistoric Fenland Centre, Batsford/English Heritage.
12. H. N. Savory, (1980); Guide Catalogue of the Bronze Age Collections, National Museum of Wales, Cardiff, pp. 58-59, nos. 291-94.
13. M. J. Green, (1986); The Gods of the Celts, Alan Sutton, Gloucester, p. 146.
14. I. M. Stead, J. B. Bowke & D. Brothwell, (1986); Lindow Man, The Body in the Bog, British Museum Press, London.
15. A. Ross, (1968); ‘Shafts, pits, wells – sanctuaries of the Belgic Britons?, in J. M. Coles & D. D. A. Simpson (eds.), Studies in Ancient Europe, Leicester University Press, pp. 255-85.
16. Ross, op. cit., p. 260.M. J. Green, (1976); A Corpus of Religious Material from the Civilian Areas of Roman Britain, British Archaeological Reports, Oxford, no.24, pp. 230-31.
17. I. A. Richmond & O. G. S. Crawford, (1949); ‘The British Section of the Ravenna Cosmography’, Archaeologia 93, 1-50, p. 23.
18. P. V. Glob, (1974); The Mound People, pp. 99-125, Faber & Faber, London.M. J. Green, (1991); The Sun-Gods of Ancient Europe, pp. 64-65, 112-116, fig. 45, Batsford, London.
19. Green, op. cit., pp. 67-68.C Pare, (1989); ‘From Dupljaja to Delphi: the ceremonial use of the wagon in later prehistory’, Antiquity 63, pp. 80-100.
20. P. V. Glob, (1969); The Bog People, pp. 18-37, Faber & Faber, London.
21. A. Bergquist & T. Taylor, (1987); ‘The origin of the Gundestrup Cauldron’, Antiquity 61, pp. 10-24.G. S. Olmsted, (1979); The Gundestrup Cauldron, Latomus, Brussels.
22. J. V. S. Megaw, (1970); Art of the European Iron Age, p. 20, no. 34, Harper & Row, New York.S. Piggott, (1968); The Druids, Thames & Hudson, London.
23. M. R. Sauter, (1976); Switzerland, Thames & Hudson, London.A. Vouga, (1923); La Tène, Leipzig.

M. J. Green, (1992); Dictionary of Celtic Myth & Legend, p. 130, Thames & Hudson.

24. D. Planck, (1982); ‘Eine neuentdeckte keltische Viereckschanze in Fellbach Schmiden, Remsmurr-Kreis’, Germania 60, pp. 105-172.
25. S. Deyts, (1985); Le sanctuaire des Sources de La Seine, Musée Archéologique, Dijon.M. J. Green, (1989); Symbol & Image in Celtic Religious Art, pp. 40-41, Routledge, London.
26. E. M. Wightman, (1970); Roman Trier and the Treveri, pp. 208-217, Hart-Davis, London.
27. B.W. Cunliffe & P. Davenport, (1985); The Temple of Sulis Minerva at Bath, vol. I: The Site, Oxford University Committee for Archaeology Monograph No.7.M. J. Green, (1992); Dictionary of Celtic Myth & Legend, pp.200-202, Thames & Hudson, London; Warriors, Virgins and Mothers: the Goddesses of Celtic Europe, British Museum Press, London.
28. Virgil, Aeneid, Book VI.
29. M. J. Green, (1993); Celtic Myths, pp. 72-72, British Museum Press, London.

Text © Dr M. J. Green (1994)

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