If any of you have ever seen Channel 4’s ‘Time Team’, you will be familiar with the idea that on archaeological excavation, many of the best and most exceptional finds are discovered right at the end of the last day of digging. Sadly, this is often not the case in non-televised archaeology, but in this one instance, it was the case. Archaeologists had been digging just outside the City of London on what is going to become a 16-storey, 291-bedroom hotel for several months when they uncovered the magnificent statue shown above in literally the last few hours of the last day of excavating. It was originally thought to have been a Victorian garden ornament due to its condition, but was soon recognised as being within Roman contexts; lying in a site known to have been a Roman cemetery. It has since been dated to the 1st or 2nd century AD, and is carved from Oolitic Cotswold limestone, standing 65cm tall and 55cm wide. A well-known school of sculptors worked in that area, and it is thought that this statue may prove the biggest and best example of their work so far unearthed. Indeed, the sculpture has been described as one of the best statues discovered from Roman Britain. It was found lying next to the foundations of a mausoleum, and is believed to have once adorned this, standing within an alcove that protected it from erosion by the elements. Such a location also explains the statue having a plain back.
The statue depicts an eagle devouring a serpent, and is seen to be a representation of good and life triumphing over evil and death. The image was therefore a popular one in funerary contexts, and eagles are also seen in Roman art as carrying the souls of the emperors to the gods- allowing the mortal to become divine. There is also the possibility that it could have adorned the tomb of a member of the ‘cult of Jupiter’ that was popular at the time the statue is thought to date from, and as such would have also provided a protective role for the deceased.
Prior to this discovery in September, a fragment of what is thought to have been a similar statue was found at Keynsham Villa, Somerset:
The only other (near) complete example of such an eagle eating a snake was found at Khirbet et Tannur, Jordan in 1937, and is now held in the Cincinnati Art Museum:
The statue is on display at the Museum of London for 6 months from yesterday, and will be well worth a look if you happen to be in the area. personally, I think that it is a truly superb find, and just hope that the rest of the site managed to reveal many further secrets even if they were not as visually striking as this piece. Also, it just shows that occasionally, real archaeology can be like ‘Time Team’!