British Collection Highlights:

Figures of Venus from Woodeaton, Oxfordshire

Two bronze statuettes in the Ashmolean’s collections were found in an ancient sanctuary on top of the low hill at Woodeaton, four miles northeast of Oxford. At first glace they appear to have little in common. An elegant, naked, seated figure 11 cm high has long been identified as Venus, the Roman goddess of love, while a dumpy, half-draped, standing figure 5 cm high passed for many years as a Romano-Celtic goddess, and has only recently been recognised as Venus.

When turned around, it becomes clear that both figures sport contemporary Roman hairstyles. The neatly swirled bun at the crown of the seated Venus’s head evokes the fashonable women of Rome in the AD 80s. They imitate Julia, daughter of the emperor Titus, who was herself represented as Venus. The heavy, flatly folded plaits of the standing figure recall Roman court fashions of AD 240-50.

Turning the figures once more to the front, both represent stories about Venus. The seated figure clearly held someone or something close to her, now lost – possibly her infant son Cupid, himself represented among the finds from Woodeaton, or perhaps the ends of the mantle flying behind the goddess as she rode to shore from her birthplace in the sea, seated on a shell drawn by sea-centaurs. The standing figure very distantly recalls a famous classical statue of the half-draped Venus drying her hair, once landed on the shore – but the Woodeaton figure faces the viewer with open arms. This gesture also appears on a contemporary mosaic pavement at Ostia, near Rome: Venus holds up in her raised right hand the apple of discord awarded her by Paris.

The plan of the temple at Woodeaton is ‘Romano-Celtic’ of the type with a square building set within a square enclosure. It can be reconstructed as a half-timbered and later stone building set in a spacious walled and gated landscape. In its centre was an open fire, set on a high platform, perhaps within a tower. A surrounding walkway was protected from the elements by high walls. Recent aerial photography reveals that this temple was flanked by two circular buildings. Various Roman gods and goddesses are represented in the finds, but it seems that worship became focused on Mars, the Roman god of war and Venus’s consort. Bronze letters have survived, probably representing parts of several dedications by individual worshippers. These were perhaps fixed to the outer wall of the temple. Among the offerings are deliberately bent miniature spears, and bronze and stone plaques representing Mars in conventional Roman fashion. A cluster of coins and offerings were found near the gate of the precinct, suggesting that the votives were sold on the spot, very like the stalls set at the gates of major modern shrines.

The Ashmolean’s bronze figurines of Venus show that this temple, located far from the sea on an island at the edge of empire attracted worshippers who followed fashions at Rome. They were well acquainted with myths about the goddess of love, born in the sea near the southern shore of Cyprus, an island at the other end of the Roman empire.

The Venus figures are on display in the 'Rome' gallery on the ground floor.

Click for back view

Seated figure of Venus (Click for back view)

Seated figure of Venus from Woodeaton, AD80-90 (AN1896-1908.R105.b)

Click for back view

Standing figure of Venus (Click for back view)

Standing figure of Venus from Woodeaton, AD 240-50 (AN1896-1908.R102)

Further Information

Kirk, J. R. ‘Bronzes from Woodeaton, Oxon’, Oxoniensia, 14 (1949), 1-45. (Available online from the Oxfordshire Architectural and Historical Society)

Kirk, J. R. and Goodchild, R. ‘The Romano Celtic Temple at Woodeaton’, Oxoniensia, 19 (1954), 15-37. (Available online from the Oxfordshire Architectural and Historical Society)

Bagnall Smith, J. 'Interim Report on the Votive Material from Romano-Celtic Temple Sites in Oxfordshire', Oxoniensia, 60 (1995), 177-203. (Available online from the Oxfordshire Architectural and Historical Society)

Bagnall Smith, J. 'More votive finds from Woodeaton, Oxfordshire', Oxoniensia, 63 (1998), 147-185. (Available online from the Oxfordshire Architectural and Historical Society)

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Susan Walker
April 2012