Welcome to Britain: Largest Roman sculpture to show its face at Chichester Novium

By Culture24 Reporter | 29 January 2014

The largest Roman statue found in Britain might seem hard to miss, but Trajan will be given greater headspace after being examined by archaeologists

A photo of a young girl looking up at a huge statue of an emperor's face
© Courtesy Chichester District Council
Facial features and a “distinctive” hairstyle, picked out during 3D scanning on the 26-stone head, have allowed experts to identify the largest Roman statue found in Britain as Emperor Trajan, made by his successor, Hadrian, in a faintly intimidating sculpture at the entrance to Chichester Harbour during the 2nd century.

A photo of a large carving of a head on a plinth inside a storage centre
© Courtesy Chichester District Council
The investigation has not been easy. Twice life-size, cast in Italian marble and discovered in a vicarage flowerbed in Bosham more than 200 years ago, the face has been battered by weathering, possibly from a spell submerged in the sea.

“People have felt for the last 200 years that there’s not enough left of the face to be that precise on its identification,” says Dr Miles Russell, of Bournemouth University, where the massive cranium was sent following several years in the Discovery Centre at Fishbourne Roman Palace in Chichester.

“The fact that it was on the harbour and mirrors what’s happening in Ostia suggests that this would have been a real monumental greeting, not just to Sussex but to the whole of southern England.

“There would have been this immense statue of the Emperor facing you as you came in to the harbour, so it’s a real Welcome to Britain statue, but reminding you that Britain is part of the Roman Empire.”

Hadrian is thought to have commissioned the statue during a visit to Britain in AD 121-122, building a similar tribute to his predecessor at Rome’s Ostia Harbour.

A photo of a large carving of a head on a plinth inside a storage centre
© Courtesy Chichester District Council
The head has been moved to The Novium, Chichester’s £7 million museum, in a move which Dr Russell hopes will give it greater exposure.

“The statue is one of the most important finds from Roman Britain and would certainly have been the most impressive,” he says.

“It is a shame that it has been ignored and overlooked for so long. But now that laser scanning has helped resolve its identity, hopefully it will now take pride of place.”

“It has always been a bit of a mystery to museum staff as to who it was meant to represent,” says Eileen Lintill, of Chichester District Council.

“It is really exciting that more information about the Bosham Head is being uncovered, including new speculation as to who it may depict.

“It is fascinating that we can learn more about items in The Novium’s collection using new technology.”

What do you think? Leave a comment below.

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