Many carved stone heads have been found in Britain, mostly in the north and west of the country. A great number of them originate from the religious practices of the native (Iron Age) people living in Britain both before and during the Roman occupation of the first four centuries AD. They are essentially cult objects. Hampshire has little natural stone (other than flint and chalk) but a fine example of a head comes from the parish of Boldre in the New Forest. It is made of Bembridge limestone, which is found nearby on the Isle of Wight and also on the Isle of Purbeck, Dorset.
The head was discovered in a disused gravel pit, then being used as a rubbish dump, by a boy who was staying in a cottage in Portmore, Boldre, and he took it back to the village. In the 1960s it came to the attention of Sidney Jackson, an archaeologist from Yorkshire, who was keen on cataloguing as many stone heads as he could. At that time, it was resting on a makeshift base beside the gate of a cottage. Permission was granted for the stone to be taken to Southampton for examination and recording and, following a number of adventures including a long spell up north, it is now in the care of the Hampshire Cultural Trust.
The head is of a ram-horned man. The eyebrows extend across the head in an unbroken line – a typically Celtic feature. The eyes are bulbous and the moustaches sweep upwards. These features give the face a ferocious appearance. Unfortunately, the lower part of the face is damaged, so we cannot be sure of the full expression of the mouth. Ram’s horns are a symbol of virility and strength and are associated with the cult of a horned god, known throughout the Celtic world. This suggests a warlike, even if pastoral, attitude for the people who made the object. The human head was thought to have evil-averting powers (apotropaic), and the fierce expression would have added to its protective potency.
The closest parallel to the Boldre head is one found in County Armagh, Northern Ireland, possibly connected with a nearby pagan sanctuary. Boldre is close to the presumed boundary between two Iron Age tribes – the Atrebates (to the east) and Durotriges (to the west); and the head may have played a role in defining the limits of their territories or been associated with a native shrine or temple.
Pagan Celtic Britain, Anne Ross (1967)
Celtic and other stone heads, Sidney Jackson (1973)
Proc Hants Field Club 26, 57-60 Anne Ross (1969) A Romano-British Cult Object from Boldre.
Series by Dave Allen, Sarah Gould, Lesley Johnson, Jane King, with help from Stacie Elliot.