Metal Detector Find Reveals Grisly Romano-British Slave Trade

By Richard Moss | 11 July 2007
a photo showing a front and side view of a metal figurine with its hands tied by a rope around its neck

Cast in bronze the figure crouches with his elbows and knees drawn together. A rope starting around the neck also binds his wrists and ankles. © Winchester Museums Service/Portable Antiquities Scheme

In the year of the bicentenary of the Parliamentary Act to abolish the Atlantic slave trade a rare Roman figurine that references an earlier trade in slaves has been discovered near Andover in Hampshire.

The small bronze decoration came to light during a metal detecting rally attended by the Portable Antiquities Scheme (PAS) in Hampshire in June 2007. The PAS helps metal detectorists and other members of the public to identify and log archaeological finds in England and Wales.

Cast in bronze the figure crouches with his elbows and knees drawn together. A rope starting around the neck also binds his wrists and ankles.

“The posture of the figure and the manner of his shackling strongly suggests that it represents an enslaved man,” explained Rob Webley the PAS Finds Liaison Officer who handled and photographed the find.

an above view of a figurine with hole drilled through its head and body

The artefact has vertical and horizontal perforations, which travel through his body. © Winchester Museums Service/Portable Antiquities Scheme

Rob has been looking closely at the work of Ralph Jackson, Curator of Romano British Collections at the British Museum and an expert on Roman symbols of slavery, to find out more about the find.

A recent study by Mr Jackson has catalogued only 16 other ‘bound captive’ figurines from the Roman Empire, ten of which are from Britain. “Elsewhere, there is mounting evidence for the Romano-British slave trade which involved both natives and others from within the empire,” said Rob.

The artefact has a number of distinctive features, including the man’s ‘Celtic’ stylised hair and the vertical and horizontal perforations, which travel through his body.

“These holes were clearly for mounting,” added Rob, “but the context in which these figurines were displayed is less certain. Might this artefact have been looked upon by someone connected with the slave trade living in Hampshire in the 2nd or 3rd century AD?”

a side and back veiw of a metal figurine with his hands tied to his ankles and neck

The artefact has a number of distinctive features, including the man’s ‘Celtic’ stylised hair. © Winchester Museums Service/Portable Antiquities Scheme

This is the third bound captive figurine reported by members of the public through the PAS, which allows metal detectorists and other members of the public to report their finds to a finds liasion officer (FLO) for photographing and recording and to have the find location logged.

It is hoped this latest find, which has been returned to the finder, will be acquired by a museum, possibly even the local Andover Museum at some point in the future.

In the meantime the record of the find remains as a grisly reminder of an inhuman trade. “In 2007, with our thoughts, correctly, focused on transatlantic slavery we should also spend a moment contemplating British associations with slavery both more recent and ancient,” said Rob.

Thousands of finds reported to the PAS, including the three bound captive figurines, can be viewed at www.finds.org.uk

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