HFC on Tour: Ancient Rome in Germania inferior, Part I: Matrones’ temples
Posted by Denny Koch on November 12, 2012
One of the main advantages of living in the Eifel region of Rhineland-Palatinate is – besides the spectacular landscape and the fascinating geology – the fact that, wherever you go, the Romans have been there before!
And the Romans left their marks, often in astonishingly good shape and condition. As inhabitants of Germania inferior (the region left of the river Rhine), it takes us only a short drive to visit ancient sites of great historical importance. In our town, there is the famous “Römervilla” (Roman villa), the largest Roman mansion North of the Alps. If we cross the Rhine, we can walk along the Limes, often with reconstructed garrisons and watchtowers.
At the lower Rhine, there is the city of Xanten, Roman: Colonia Ulpia Traiana, with Germany’s biggest archeological open-air museum. At the Mosel river, you can find Germany’s oldest city Trier (Augusta Treverorum) with the famous Porta Nigra and another archaeological park.
Last but not least, Roman temples, mines, quarries, houses, aqueducts are scattered all over the region, often only hinted at by a small sign at the side of the road. Since we visited many of these Ancient Roman sites in Germania, we want to share our experiences with you history buffs
The first travel report is about a very special tour through the Eifel – and an insider’s tip: you can find three very important Ancient Roman temples here where Matrones, female deities, were venerated. One of the world’s most famous and best-known consecration stones, showing the Aufanian Matronae, was discovered here.
If you want to visit the temples in Zingsheim and Nöthen-Pesch, you best go there by car. The area is very rural and there is no chance to get there by public transport. The largest temple in Nettersheim can be reached by train, though. It’s a medium length walk from the railway station at Nettersheim to the temple site, located on a small hill.
If you are the athletic type, you could go to Nettersheim by train and then visit the other temples by bicycle or even hike to the other temples from there, but a car is strongly recommended for the casual historical interested tourist! The next larger town is Bad Münstereifel, the “unofficial capital” of the Eifel region, which also has a railway station.
The smallest of the three temples, named “Vor Hirschberg”, is located in the industrial zone of Zingsheim, next to a saw mill. It was discovered in 1960 and dates back to the 2nd to 4th century. It is one of two Roman temples dedicated to the Matronae Fachinehae (the only other known temple for these type of Matrones is also in the Eifel, near Euskirchen).
The temple is rectangular, 2.60 x 3.40 meters long (8.5 x 11.15 feet). The foundations have been reconstructed and there is also an informational panel next to the temple, explaining the historical backgrounds of the site. Archaeologists believe that this temple is only a small part of a larger temple complex, but the entire complex was never reconstructed. The most important findings were a small female figurine, a girl’s head made of stone and two consecration stones, showing the Matronae Fachinehae.
The original stones are in a museum today, but a copy of the famous Celeris stone, made of the typical red Eifel sandstone, was set up next to the temple.
Nettersheim – Görresburg
Nettersheim is a picturesque typical Eifel village with half-timbered houses. It is quite famous for its geology and tries to attract visitors with soft, sustainable tourism. There is a large Center for Nature and History in the village, presenting the geological, ancient, medieval, and recent history as well as the ecological diversity of the rural Eifel region (which is also a National park) . This Center is maintained by a staff of archaeologists, geologists, biologists and historians.
There are various hiking trails in and around Nettersheim, for example the Ancient Roman route, geological routes, a nature trail, a butterfly trail and a high rope course. You can also rent bicycles here and explore the area on your own, or join one of the guided thematic tours.
Nettersheim has a small railway station. You can reach the city by train from larger German cities such as Cologne, Bonn, Bad Münstereifel or Trier. Since the village is very interested in tourism, everything is well-signposted, neat and clean. Starting from the Center of Nature and History, you will find the short hiking trail to the Roman temple without effort. The staff is also very helpful and friendly and will give you directions or even a map, if you ask them. There is also a small book shop in the center, and you can rest here while having a coffee or tea.
The temple (which is called “Görresburg” today) is a tourist attraction and highly frequented by wanderers, families, tourists, and even modern pagans (for example Wiccans) and other heathens which follow the old Roman traditions (Cultus Deorum Romanorum, as practiced by the Nova Roma movement). Since the large temple is located on a hill with a great view over the Eifel, it is a very attractive excursion destination.
The temple was discovered by peasants in 1909 when they found strange large stones with three sitting figures on their fields. Archaeologists soon found out that these were ancient Roman consecration stones, dating back to 200 AD. The complex consists of several rooms. Today, only the foundation walls remain, but they are well maintained.
During the excavations, lots of Roman findings were made: more consecration stones, parts of pillars, shards, Roman coins. The original findings are exhibited in the “Rheinisches Landesmuseum” in Bonn, but three copies of the famous consecration stones were returned to the temple site. Before Roman times, the location was probably a sacred site for the native German tribes, but Romans liked to use native cult places to build temples of their own there.
The Matrones of Nettersheim, three women in sitting position on the consecration stones, are named “Matrones Aufaniae“. Matrones are often portrayed as a trinity, two older women wearing the headgear of a married and a widowed Ubian women, and a younger women with long, open hair. The matrones cult, where the matrones were venerated as female deities, was very popular in North-Western Europe and spread fast with the Roman legions through Europe, even to Britannia. The central stone also shows other deities: Hercules and Venus. On the left stone, you can also find the depiction of an offering table with a pig’s head and a horn of plenty.
Next to the temple are information boards which offer detailed information about the historical site and the archaeological relevance.
The temple consists of three buildings, all with entrances to the East. Excavations proved that more buildings existed South of the complex. The largest building is considered to be the Cella, made of limestone with bricks and probably painted white. There was also a vicus, a small settlement, in the temple vicinity, where several Roman graves were found (the dead had been cremated, so no corporeal remains). The name of the vicus is unknown.
When we visited this temple, we could witness how lively and active the Matrones cult appears to be today. The consecration stones were decorated with various cult objects, ribbons, and stones. There were sacrificial offerings everywhere, from ritual bread to fruits and incense sticks. A group of women was meditating next to the temple walls, and one was kneeling in front of the Matrones stone, unimpressed by the tourists around her.
Certainly the most beautiful of the three temples is the so-called “Heidentempel” (“Heathen’s temple”) near Nöthen-Pesch. It is hidden inside a dense forest and certainly the hardest to find. We circled through the villages of Nöthen and Pesch for a while, asking natives for directions.
You can park your car in a small parking lot at the forest entrance. From there, it’s a ten minute walk into the wood, you only have to follow the signs to the “Heidentempel”.
The temple complex was discovered in 1913 and dates back to the 2nd – 4th century. First buildings were built in the 1st century, but the main portion of the temple was constructed in 330 AD and later destroyed in 450. Pesch is the largest of the three temples with various buildings, and even a well. The location within the wood is very atmospheric, which explains why this temple is also still active and quite popular among pagans today.
The rectangular cella is the heart of the temple complex. Archaeologists believe that a life-sized Matrona statue was inside the (lockable) cella. At the entrance are two Matrones consecration stones, dedicated to the Matronae Vacallinehae. They have been colored because archaeologists think that these stones had been originally colored, too, which looks quite nice. As in Nettersheim, numerous sacrificial offerings can be found next to these stones.
The right stone was discovered in 1909. The inscription reads: “To the aufanean gods, for the welfare of the undefeated Antonius Augustus, Marcus Aurelius Agrippus fulfilled his solemn vow thankfully and with pleasure”.
The right stone was discovered in the church altar in Mechernich in 1991. The inscription reads: “To the Matrones Vacallinehis did Lucius Caldinus Firminius happily fulfill his solemn pledge”.
Next to the cella are other rooms and buildings of the temple complex, one of them a small, open hexagonal building dedicated to the god Jupiter, built in 200 AD and a small statue of the god Jupiter was discovered within the temple complex. A recent campfire site is proof of regular ritual activity in this temple area.
Another large building is a Roman basilica, a 14 metres (46 ft) long rectangular building with an apsis, a cellar, and traces of bench seats, which served as a profane assembly and meeting room next to the sacred sites. It was built in 330 AD and destroyed in 450 AD. The fundaments of several pillars are still intact.
In front of the basilica was a large courtyard, where a holy tree (probably an oak) was located, as well as more consecrated votive stones which were discovered in 1913. The sanctuary soon became a famous pilgrimage site.
This temple complex is maintained by the federal Landschaftsverband Rheinland and is in very good shape, because the walls and foundations are continuously checked and repaired if necessary.
If you want to visit Ancient Roman temples in Germania inferior, you have come to the right place in this remote Eifel region – the temple density is very high and the locations are well maintained and offer detailed background information on information boards next to the excavation sites.
It feels weird and fascinating at the same time to walk through a temple which already existed 2000 years ago and where people gathered over generations to pray to their gods even before the arrival of Christian missionaries – it’s an example for the strong feeling of really old traditions one can get when visiting historical sites in Germany or in Europe in general. Both Nettersheim and Pesch are atmospheric and embedded into a great landscape (Zingsheim is too small and located next to a sawmill in an industrial zone to convey any atmosphere, the only chance to experience this small temples character is when you come at night, sitting at a warm campfire while listening to the sounds of nature around you), so if you want to walk in the footsteps of the Romans in Germania inferior, you will certainly be happy here.
The cities of Bonn, Trier, and Cologne (all of Roman origin) are not too far away and complement the program by presenting the original findings (and much more) in their Roman-German museums and archaeological sites. Especially the LVR museum in Bonn is the most relevant museum if you are interested in the Matrones and the regional Roman history of the Eifel.
Watch out for more travel reports and photos of Ancient Roman sites in Germania!