Visiting London, and the Museum of London to see The Cheapside Hoard: London’s Lost Jewels exhibition, last week I also got to see the latest, albeit temporary addition to the Roman Galleries. This exquisite stone sculpture of an eagle with a snake in its beak and writhing around the bird’s body has only just been recovered during archaeological excavations in the City of London, cleaned up and placed on temporary display in the museum for six months.
After some 1,900 years the sculpture came to light on the last day of recovery excavations at a building site in Minories Street. Not only was it in a ditch, but its excellent preservation led the archaeologists to think it was a Victorian garden ornament. As the archaeological context became clearer, so too the Roman age of the sculpture became certain.
Carved in Britain using Cotswold Limestone, the sculpture adorned the mausoleum of a wealthy citizen of Londinium (Roman London). The tomb was situated in the eastern cemetery of the Roman city, just outside the city walls. Here, much like the Via Appia in Rome, the more wealthier citizens had their family tombs, which would have been decorated with stone sculptures.
When the tomb was demolished, probably to make use of the stone in other buildings or tombs, the stone eagle appears to have been carefully placed in a ditch.
Representations of eagles are to be found everywhere across the Roman Empire. One of the contexts in which these images can be found is funerary art. Here the god Jupiter is often depicted as an eagle, struggling death represented as a snake. Archaeologists think it is perhaps superstitions that might have been associated with this iconography of gods and death that saved the sculpture from being used as building stone along with the rest of the tomb.
Once carefully placed in a ditch, shear chance prevented it from destruction as Tudor, Victorian and Twentieth century buildings were erected above it, with the foundations of these buildings dug in around it.
The front of the sculpture is detailed and intricate, while the back has not been given much attention at all. This suggests the carving was probably placed in a niche on the tomb. Anyone who has seen a bird of prey battling with a live snake will immediately recognise the stance of this carved eagle, with its splayed wings, and the writhing snake wrapped around the body of the bird.
Just as individual feathers are clear, so too is the head of the snake – below the neck of the bird: out of the snake’s mouth extends a slightly exaggerated forked tongue, and an anatomically inaccurate row of sharp teeth were added to the open mouth. Given the detail, character and preservation, experts are agreed: not only is this the finest Roman sculpture ever found in London, it is amongst the finest of all known Romano-British sculptures.
The sculpture is currently on temporary display in the Museum of London, for six months as of November 2013. After its recovery, the sculpture was carefully cleaned and a frame added to support broken wing. It was on display in the Roman Galleries in record time, just under thirty days. We eagerly await the results of the research on the sculpture and the site at which it was found. Almost certainly, it will return to the Roman Galleries, accorded pride of place.