Sacred Waters and Altars

Bret Gaunt sheds more light on some of the Roman artefacts at Buxton Museum:

With the arrival of the Romans in the 1st century a new culture was introduced to the tribal lands of the Corieltauvi, the native, Iron Age people of the Peak District. Although the region remained largely agricultural, the Romans exploited the rich lead deposits and established forts, such as Melandra and Brough, to control both the commodities and the local people. The Romans also built the town of Buxton, centred on the sacred thermal spring.

One of the ways in which the Romans integrated into the local cultures that became part of the Empire, was by the adoption of local gods into the pantheon of Rome. The Iron Age Celts largely worshipped at open air sites, most often associated with water, such as lakes, bogs, rivers and sacred springs. One of the most famous watery sites in the Peak District is the thermal spring at Buxton, then known as Aquae Arnemetiae, meaning ‘the Waters of the goddess Arnemetia’.

Buxton is one of only two places in Roman Britain known to have the prefix ‘Aquae’, the other being Bath in Somerset, known to the Romans as Aquae Sulis (the Waters of the goddess Sulis). Like its counterpart in the South, Roman Buxton consisted of a series of Bath houses, now under the Crescent, close to the sacred springs. On the Slopes, overlooking the site of the baths and springs, was a temple dedicated to the goddess Arnemetia; excavations in the late 18th century revealed that the temple was of typical Classical design with a rectangular podium supporting a shrine room with portico of columns to the front. Such temples are a rarity in Roman Britain with only five such examples being known; temples in Roman Britain more often take the form known as Romano-Celtic, being a tower type structure with colonnaded ambulatory around all four sides.

The name of the goddess Arnemetia contains the Celtic word ‘nemeton’, meaning ‘sacred grove’; so her name is interpreted as being ’she who dwells over against the sacred grove’. The springs at Buxton must have held special powers for the local people as there are six grouped closely together in the valley floor and which provide both hot and cold water. During the Roman period offerings of jewellery and coins were made at one of the springs located between The Old Hall Hotel and the Crescent; these finds are now in the Wonders of the Peak gallery at Buxton Museum and Art Gallery.

brough altar
Altar to Arnomecta from Brough

Other evidence for the goddess Arnemetia comes in the form of an altar from the fort of Navio, close to the village of Brough, and now in the Wonders of the Peak gallery. Here the goddess is given the name Arnomecta. The altar was found in the underground strong-room of the headquarters building and consists of the typical block shape with a pair of bolsters to the top and inscription to the front. The inscription, which is contained within a wreath, reads ‘Deae Arnomecte Ael(ius) Motio V(otum S(olvit) L(aetus) L(ibens) M(erito), meaning ‘To the goddess Arnomecta, Aelius Motio gladly, willingly, and deservedly fulfilled his vow’.

altar top
Imperial altar top from Melandra

Altars were central to the cults of most gods and was the focus for sacrifices and offerings to the particular deity. At temple sites the altar was generally outside, and opposite the main door, though at military shrines in forts and Romano-Celtic temples the altars were often placed inside and against the walls. The large outdoor altars were for the public ceremonies associated with the deity, which generally involved the sacrifice of animals accompanied by prayers for the well-being of the Emperor and the community. The smaller altars would have been more suitable for the offering of food, incense and for wine to be poured over the top. It was not unusual for an altar to be erected or promised to a god in exchange for a safe journey or other favour, thus the phrase ‘gladly, willingly and deservedly fulfilled his vow’ on the Navio altar shows that whatever Aelius Motio asked for, the gods provided!

Other altars in Buxton Museum and Art Gallery include the top to a large Imperial altar from Melandra Roman fort near Glossop, a badly weathered altar from Hope village, as well as a small altar dedicated to Mars, god of war, from Brough. There must have been numerous altars set up at the healing shrine of Arnemetia in Buxton, including a large altar outside the temple for the focus of worship, but to date none have been found. Many of the altars were dedicated by people from across the Empire; an altar at Haddon Hall, near Bakewell, is dedicated to the Roman god of war Mars, and the Celtic goddess of sacred intoxication, Braciaca, by a high ranking officer from Numidia in North Africa, revealing the diverse cultures that existed in Roman Derbyshire.




It’s a difficult thing to capture a mermaid, on camera. The qualities that define them are as slippery as the bottom half of a fish. They’re fast, mercurial and fictitious, so the only time you get to see one for real is in your head. In movies, they’re sanitised, in pageants, they’re objectified and in myth, they’re really scary. So, it was with some trepidation that I photographed professional mermaids Anita and Maša for my Buxton Mermaid project. What type of creatures would they be?

I like the shot of Maša’s hair, wild and backlit as if it’s on fire. It looks like she’s at a rock concert. There’s a feral quality about her character that feels authentic – a smart, savage force of nature who is beguiling but watch out, she could drag you down to the deep.

The other image I like is the black and white one, the diagonal shot of Anita, descending into the ink. There’s an ‘other-worldly’ vibe ]that’s a wee bit scary. I don’t know if you’ve seen the mermaid exhibit at Buxton Museum but if you could sum her up in two syllables, ‘scary’ would be correct.

But the main feeling I came away with was one of joy. There is something magical about watching intelligent, articulate women spin and glide through the blue. It’s dance, it’s circus, it’s a Coney Island show. And yes, I know, it’s a woman dressed up but for one fleeting moment, it’s a mermaid. Flash and there’s the proof.

Proud Boys in the Background

Archivist Ian Gregory unveils another glimpse in to the past:

Every now and then, as I number and re-number photographs in our collection, one will catch my eye. It happened the other day as I catalogued a group photo from 1902. Men and boys have gathered round a collection of fossil animal bones. They sit or stand by a quarry face, similar to one where both my grandads once worked.


Two figures at the back hold my attention. They are young boys, probably in their early to mid-teens. One has a hand on his lapel while the other has both hands behind his back. Their faces are a little blurred, but their postures indicate pride. Did they help in recovering those bones? Were they the first people to have seen them for millennia? Were they excited? Nervous? Did someone order them to help or had they volunteered? If ordered then I think they came to enjoy their task.

In those days most people left school at the age of twelve. How much did these boys understand about the excavations? No one would’ve known that humans evolved in Africa or that dinosaurs had feathers and so on, not even the men in suits who presumably directed operations. Then again, Darwin’s theory of evolution was already well established in the academic community. Perhaps these two boys had already heard something about it. If not then the people leading the dig could have told them of it.

My mother was at school in the 1930s and she told me that subjects like religion were taught in a simple way, even then. Pupils learned little about non-Christian belief systems. Yet neither she nor her friends were Creationists, they all accepted that the earth is millions of years old. Perhaps when you work long hours at physically demanding jobs you haven’t time to ask too many questions. I suspect that my two youths were in that situation of the time. My grandparents certainly were. That said, when help with an excavation was needed, experts often called on local people who had never been to university as there was no one else available. The said locals must’ve picked up some knowledge.

What did the future hold for those proud looking youngsters? Did they resume backbreaking labour? Did they try to find out more about the past? Or did an accident or the First World War end their dreams too soon? I don’t know, but if that day in 1902 they swaggered on their way home, then it’s quite understandable.


Next week (March 12-16th) i’ll be in Buxton Museum, presenting 3 new interactive works made over the last 8 months in response to the Museum’s collection of minerals.

Still from Mineral Sounds

First up is “Mineral Sounds” which fulfils a desire to create soundscapes from physical objects. For this project I’ve built small turntables with 4” platters onto which people will be able to place handling minerals from the Museum’s collection. Webcams pointed at the turntables scan the minerals, converting their silhouettes into data which can be used by a software synth. One mineral’s silhouette is used to create the notes being played while the other mineral’s silhouette drives whether that note plays or not, or can be set to increase / decrease the resonance of the note.

Still from Draw Minerals

Next is “Draw Minerals” an iPad app in which people can use the touch screen to draw and their own crystalline mineral creations. Choosing from four basic shapes, three sizes and five colours many varied forms can be created.

Still from Mineral Composition

Finally for “Mineral Composition” I looked at electron microscopy images of minerals, creating an abstract composition from the amazing forms hidden from our eyes. This piece will be presented on a 55” touchscreen, touching the forms will animate them and produce sounds. 

My hope for all this work is that people will play the pieces like musical instruments, connecting with one another through these interactives. 



There are many fabulous creatures in Buxton Museum, think ice-age teeth and the skull of an, “OMG, what IS that?” Every exhibit tells a story but for me, the one that caught my eye was ‘The Little Mermaid’, a freaky, fake-news curio made of fish skin and hair.

It set me thinking, what would a real mermaid look like? In today’s modern world?Turns out there are lots of them. Not real ones, obviously, just women who like to wear tails and hey, why not?  I met some fabulous synchronised swimmers from the Peak District and it was a privilege to swim with them, albeit badly.

I then discovered the world of the ‘Professional Mermaid’. The woman in the photo is Anita Jasso, a free-diver who can hold her breath for 5 minutes. I’m going to say that again, so you can truly appreciate how impressive that is, she can hold her breath for 5 minutes. The photos show Anita in the TV series ‘Butterfly’ starring Anna Friel. The kid in the picture is me, in spirit, looking on in wonder.

I asked Anita when she first ‘grew’ a tail. Apparently, she was diving in Egypt and swam through an arch. She looked up and high above, was the silhouette of a mermaid. Anita’s first thought was, “I’m hallucinating”, which can happen in the deep. Later, she discovered it was just someone testing out a new fin – but the ‘Wow’, Anita experienced has stayed with her to this day.


What strikes me about Anita, is her intelligence. She’s an Advanced Radiographer – looks through people by day and water by night – and it’s that fluent knowledge that sets her apart. She’s acutely aware of what happens to her body, at every stage of descent, as she dives down to the cold, dark place where mere mortals black out. It is phenomenal. Like watching humans evolve.

It’s a fabulous thing to be a mermaid, but let’s play Devils Advocate, what is the point? Sure, it ‘takes your breath away’, in all sorts of ways and I’d defy anyone not to be moved by the magic BUT what is it FOR? Why dress up? To look pretty? To court our attention? Is that it?

The answer is NO and then some. Anita Jasso does not swim in those shallows. As a passionate advocate of marine conservation, she uses her formidable skills to highlight the issue of plastics in our ocean. With her rock-solid, free-diving core, she embodies female empowerment and brings a pin-sharp intellect to a rapidly growing ‘sport’ that has yet to define its identity. Trailblazing the way, she defines the contradiction of a warm human being who thrives in a very cold place – the tough, dangerous and ultimately sublime world of world-class, deep-sea diving. Now that is cool.

As I’ve mentioned on previous posts, I am writing a story about the Buxton Mermaid. As a thank you to Anita,  I offered to name one of my characters after her. She chose the ‘Bad Girl’, which is cool all over again. Then she swam off into the deep.

I’m not knocking people who like the more, how can I put this? …lilac style of mermaid. The Little Mermaid is great for kids and we could all do with a bit more sparkle (as long as it’s not polluting the ocean) but the exhibit in Buxton Museum? Let’s just say, it ain’t pretty. As a person who celebrates diversity, I love that. I find myself in the strange situation of having a schoolboy crush on a skull-faced woman, whose bottom half is a fish. Brilliant!

Photos courtesy of Red Productions / ITV

The Buxton Mermaid is free to see at the wonderful Buxton Museum.