"Almost unbelievable" Roman archaeology find thrills Museum of London archaeologists

By Ben Miller | 29 October 2013

A powerfully symbolic Roman limestone sculpture of a snake-grabbing eagle, which archaeologists say they were hesitant to announce due to its “almost unbelievable condition”, has been dated to an early Roman mausoleum.

A photo of a Roman sculpture of an eagle
© MOLA / Andy Chopping
Thought to depict the struggle of good against evil, the bird of prey clutches the serpent in its beak, held with a forked tongue.

Discovered by archaeologists surveying the proposed foundations of a London hotel, the highly-skilled carving has already been described as “among the best statues surviving from Roman Britain”.

“The eagle is a classically Roman symbol,” said Michael Marshall, a Finds Specialist from the Museum of London Archaeology, which is digging the rubble ahead of a planned 16-storey development.

“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. Perhaps from inside a mausoleum, this 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.”

A photo of an archaeologist working on a muddy site
Experts say the closest comparison to the sculpture comes from Jordan© MOLA / Maggie Cox
Made from oolitic limestone from the Cotswolds, where a well-known but rarely-represented school of Romano-British sculptors worked during the 1st and 2nd centuries, the sculpture still bears clearly discernible feather designs, with an absence of details on its back suggesting a place in an alcove.

“The sculpture is of exceptional quality,” said Reverend Professor Martin Henig, calling it “the finest sculpture by a Romano-British artist” ever to have been found in the capital.

“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.”

The eagle will go on display for six months at the Museum of London from the October 30 2013.

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