Head of Ayle
Photograph of the head at the time its true significance was first recognised, in 2011. Until this point it had sat on top of a fieldwall, hence the covering of moss.
Source: Paul Frodsham.
Copyright: Paul Frodsham.

Head of Ayle
The Head of Ayle photographed a few months after the first image, when the moss had started to die off. (The moss was not scraped off in order to avoid risking possible damage to the stone surface).
Source: Historic England.
Copyright: Historic England.

Head of Ayle discovery site
A view from the place where the Head of Ayle was found (not necessarily its original provenance, but probably not far away), with the Roman fort of Epiacum visible on the far side of the valley (just above and to the left of the farmhouse).
Source:  Paul Frodsham.
Copyright:  Paul Frodsham.

The Tortie Stone
Original Location: High Row, near Ayle, Alston
Current Location: Private
Theme: Ritual
Period: Roman
Date: Possibly 3rd century AD

What is it?
A ‘celtic’ stone head, presumably of a god from a local shrine, found in a field wall at High Row and named after Ayle, the nearest hamlet. The findspot, significantly, overlooks the line of the Maiden Way Roman road and the fort of Epiacum (Whitley Castle).

What is its relevance to the North Pennines?
This fine stone ‘celtic’ head was found built into a drystone wall at Middle Row, near Ayle, high above the east bank of the South Tyne near Kirkhaugh. Its original context is unknown, but there are a number of natural springs in the immediate vicinity and it is probable that the head once embellished a ‘sacred spring’ somewhere in the locality.

Several similar heads are known from northern England, and although they are definitely ‘celtic’ rather than ‘Roman’ in character, they are all found quite close to Roman forts, and there is no record of any such heads having been produced in Britain prior to the Roman occupation, although they were popular in parts of continental Europe. This has led to the intriguing suggestion that this example may have been produced by a serving soldier who came from a European community which use such heads, and was seeking to continue with his native religious tradition while serving in Britain. We know that the garrison at Epiacum was at one time the Second Cohort of Nervians, originally based in what is now Belgium, so this provides a possible context for such a scenario. The stone from which the head is carved is probably local, but this has yet to be confirmed geologically and it may be from elsewhere; if the latter then this would be interesting, suggesting that the carving was brought to South Tynedale from afar.

The head has several distinctive characteristics which demonstrate its authenticity. It appears to have two small bumps on its head which may suggest that is it intended to represent Belatucadros a little-known celtic god linked to warfare and hunting who was worshipped by serving Roman soldiers at several places along Hadrian’s Wall, in some cases being equated with Mars, the Roman god of war. The evidence for this comes in the form of several inscriptions on altars, for example from Carvoran and Coventina’s Well at Brocolitia (Carrawbrough). Another stone head thought to represent Belatucadros, with more prominent horns that the Head of Ayle, is known form Carvoran fort, just a few kilometres to the north along the Maiden Way. To the south, further inscriptions recording Belatucadros are known form Brocavum (Brougham), at a strategic position on the Roman road network at the south-west corner of the North Pennines.

Why is it important?
The Head of Ayle is important in its own right as a rare example of a representation of a celtic deity from northern England, and the only example known to survive from the heart of the North Pennines. It appears to represent the influence of the Roman garrison at Epiacum extending into the wider landscape, and is perhaps the result of a serving soldier seeking to respect aspects of his religious beliefs while a long way from home. It appears to relate to a tradition of similar carvings throughout Roman northern England, and may represent the god Belatucadros, apparently popular with serving soldiers and linked with warfare and hunting.

Further Information


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