Archaeologists have discovered an extraordinary Roman sculpture in the form of an eagle firmly grasping a writhing serpent in its beak.
The find was uncovered on a site in the City of London, ahead of development of a 16 storey 291 bed hotel by Scottish Widows Investment Partnership (SWIP) and its development partners Endurance Land. The team from MOLA (Museum of London Archaeology) were at first hesitant to announce the discovery and to proclaim its Roman origins, owing to its almost unbelievable condition.
Specialists have now confirmed that the sculpture dates to the 1st or 2nd century AD. Depictions of eagles and serpents are typically Roman but the closest comparison to this sculpture comes from Jordan. The symbolism is understood as the struggle of good, the eagle, against evil, the snake. This theme is common in funerary contexts and an important Roman cemetery is known to have been located on the site. Archaeologists believe that this statue once adorned a rich mausoleum, the foundations of which were also unearthed. The lack of weathering on the statue corroborates this theory, as does the absence of detail on the back of the sculpture; suggesting it once sat it an alcove.
Described by experts as ‘amongst the very best statues surviving from Roman Britain’, the skill of the craftsman is apparent; with the forked tongue of the snake and the individual feathers of the eagle still clearly discernible today. Some 65cm tall and 55cm wide, the sculpture is made from oolitic limestone from the Cotswolds. A well-known and celebrated school of Romano-British sculptors worked in the area but to date examples of their exquisite work has been scant and fragmentary.
Michael Marshall, MOLA Finds Specialist, said: “The eagle is a classically Roman symbol and this new find provides a fascinating new insight into the inhabitants of Roman London and demonstrates their familiarity with the iconography of the wider classical world. Funerary sculpture from the city is very rare and this example, perhaps from inside a mausoleum, is a particularly fine example which will help us to understand how the cemeteries and tombs that lined the roads out of the city were furnished and the beliefs of those buried there.”
Reverend Professor Martin Henig, said: “The sculpture is of exceptional quality, the finest sculpture by a Romano-British artist ever found in London and amongst the very best statues surviving from Roman Britain. Its condition is extraordinary; the carving as crisp as on the day it was carved. All it has lost is the surface paint, probably washed away when it was deposited in a ditch.”
Calum Flockhart, Investment Manager, SWIP Property Trust, said: “This has been an exciting project for the SWIP Property Trust not only from a real estate perspective but from an archaeological one too. It’s not every day that a fine Roman sculpture is discovered in pristine condition on one of our development sites. As a responsible developer, it’s great to be part of the project team that helped make this discovery happen.”
The object will go on display for 6 months at the Museum of London from the 30th of October 2013 so that members of the public can see this rare and remarkable piece in all its glory.
Header Image : 1. Minories Eagle and Serpent (c) MOLA, Andy Chopping