Roman eagle rises again in London after 2,000 years

Sculpture probably adorned the tomb of an important figure

Archaeologists in London have discovered the finest Romano-British sculpture ever unearthed in the capital. The spectacular 65 centimetre tall sculpture of a Roman eagle with a snake in its beak was found at the bottom of an ancient Roman ditch just south of Aldgate station in the eastern part of the City - and will go on show at the Museum of London from Wednesday.

Originally, the eagle had almost certainly adorned either the interior or the roof of a grandiose tomb belonging to a prosperous and very important early Londoner who died in the late first or second century AD.

He must have been of substantial status and influence - because he had acquired a burial plot immediately by the side of one of the main roads leading out of London, some 50 metres outside the probable city boundary.

Indeed it is likely that the Roman city authorities gave him the honour of being buried on public land. That would suggest that he had been a senior political figure in Roman London - potentially one of the 'joint mayors' (the 'magistrates' who were appointed by the local city council to run the city's finances, oversee religious matters and act as judges).

The 'eagle and snake' imagery is likely to have reflected the man's powerful position in life.  The eagle - a Roman symbol of power is seen in the sculpture fighting a snake, sometimes perceived in the Roman world as representing danger and the powers of the underworld.

The eagle's presence on or in the tomb may have therefore also been seen as protecting the structure and the prominent Roman interred within it.

But it is the demise of that grandiose mausoleum-style tomb and the deposition of the eagle in a road-side ditch that may prove to be of greatest historical significance. For the archaeologists also found the foundations of the probable mausoleum - and it appears that the substantial six metre square structure had been deliberately demolished, but not to provide space for the construction of other buildings. Rather it appears to have been knocked down for some other reason.

The evidence so far suggests that it was probably demolished by the late second century AD - potentially around the time that the city authorities decided to construct a defensive wall around London. It's conceivable that the mausoleum was deliberately knocked down at that time because it was too near the intended course of the city wall and might therefore have offered cover to potential enemies who might wish to attack the city.

MOLA conservator Luisa Duarte working on the eagle sculpture (MOLA) MOLA conservator Luisa Duarte working on the eagle sculpture (MOLA)
It is also possible that the masonry from the mausoleum was used in the actual building of the wall when its construction began in the late second century.

Powerful protective figure the eagle might have been - but, not being a useful masonry block, it was therefore the wrong shape to help build the city wall and defend London. It's therefore perhaps courtesy of its unsuitability for that more practical protective role that led to it being flung into a ditch, an act which preserved the sculpture for 1800 years.

The limestone sculpture itself was originally made either in the Cotswolds or in London by a member of a group of Romano-British sculptors associated with what is now the Gloucestershire area. In Britain, the only other similar known image of an eagle with a snake is a sculpture from a Roman villa in Somerset. However, elsewhere in the Roman Empire, the motif is relatively common and was inherited from an ancient Greek prototype.

Excavation at the Minories site, London, believed to be the base of a grand mausoleum (MOLA) Excavation at the Minories site, London, believed to be the base of a grand mausoleum (MOLA)
The excavation team - from Museum of London Archaeology - found the eagle on the final day of an eight month long dig in the Minories near Aldgate. It's one of the most important archaeological finds ever unearthed in London. The excavation - directed by archaeologist Simon Davis - was carried out in preparation for the construction of a hotel on the site.

Roman art specialist Professor Martin Henig of Oxford University's Institute of Archaeology said: “The sculpture is of exceptional quality, the finest sculpture by a Romano-British artist ever found in London and amongst the very best statues surviving from Roman Britain. It's condition is extraordinary.”

PROMOTED VIDEO
Arts and Entertainment
Gothic revival: artist Dave McKean’s poster for Terror and Wonder: The Gothic Imagination
Exhibition
Arts and Entertainment
Diana Beard has left the Great British Bake Off 2014

TV
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment
Lisa Kudrow, Courtney Cox and Jennifer Anniston reunite for a mini Friends sketch on Jimmy Kimmel Live

TV
Arts and Entertainment
TVDessert week was full of the usual dramas as 'bingate' ensued
Arts and Entertainment
Clara and the twelfth Doctor embark on their first adventure together
TVThe regulator received six complaints on Saturday night
Arts and Entertainment
Vinyl demand: a factory making the old-style discs
musicManufacturers are struggling to keep up with the resurgence in vinyl
Arts and Entertainment
David Baddiel concedes his show takes its inspiration from the hit US series 'Modern Family'
comedyNew comedy festival out to show that there’s more to Jewish humour than rabbi jokes
Arts and Entertainment
Puff Daddy: One Direction may actually be able to use the outrage to boost their credibility

music
Arts and Entertainment
Suha Arraf’s film ‘Villa Touma’ (left) is set in Ramallah and all the actresses are Palestinian

film
Arts and Entertainment
Madame Vastra and Jenny Flint kiss in Doctor Who episode 'Deep Breath'

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Steve Carell in the poster for new film 'Foxcatcher'
filmExclusive: First look at comic actor in first major serious role
Arts and Entertainment

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Kingston Road in Stockton is being filmed for the second series of Benefits Street
arts + entsFilming for Channel 4 has begun despite local complaints
Arts and Entertainment
Led Zeppelin

music
Arts and Entertainment
Radio presenter Scott Mills will be hitting the Strictly Come Dancing ballroom
TV
Arts and Entertainment

TV
Arts and Entertainment

TV
Arts and Entertainment
The Doctor and Clara have their first real heart to heart since he regenerated in 'Deep Breath'
tv
Arts and Entertainment
Beyonce performs in front of a Feminist sign at the MTV VMAs 2014

music
Arts and Entertainment
Miley Cyrus has taken home the prize for Video of the Year at the MTV Video Music Awards 2014

music
Arts and Entertainment
Peter Paige and Scott Lowell in Queer as Folk (Season 5)
tvA batch of shows that 'wouldn't get past a US network' could give tofu sales an unexpected lift
Arts and Entertainment
books... but seller will be hoping for more
Independent
Travel Shop
the manor
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on city breaks Find out more
santorini
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on chic beach resorts Find out more
sardina foodie
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on country retreats Find out more
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Ukraine crisis: The phoney war is over as Russian troops and armour pour across the border

    The phoney war is over

    Russian troops and armour pour into Ukraine
    Potatoes could be off the menu as crop pests threaten UK

    Potatoes could be off the menu as crop pests threaten UK

    The world’s entire food system is under attack - and Britain is most at risk, according to a new study
    Gangnam smile: why the Chinese are flocking to South Korea to buy a new face

    Gangnam smile: why the Chinese are flocking to South Korea to buy a new face

    Seoul's plastic surgery industry is booming thanks to the popularity of the K-Pop look
    From Mozart to Orson Welles: Creative geniuses who peaked too soon

    Creative geniuses who peaked too soon

    After the death of Sandy Wilson, 90, who wrote his only hit musical in his twenties, John Walsh wonders what it's like to peak too soon and go on to live a life more ordinary
    Caught in the crossfire of a cyber Cold War

    Caught in the crossfire of a cyber Cold War

    Fears are mounting that Vladimir Putin has instructed hackers to target banks like JP Morgan
    Salomé's feminine wiles have inspired writers, painters and musicians for 2,000 years

    Salomé: A head for seduction

    Salomé's feminine wiles have inspired writers, painters and musicians for 2,000 years. Now audiences can meet the Biblical femme fatale in two new stage and screen projects
    From Bram Stoker to Stanley Kubrick, the British Library's latest exhibition celebrates all things Gothic

    British Library celebrates all things Gothic

    Forthcoming exhibition Terror and Wonder: The Gothic Imagination will be the UK's largest ever celebration of Gothic literature
    The Hard Rock Café's owners are embroiled in a bitter legal dispute - but is the restaurant chain worth fighting for?

    Is the Hard Rock Café worth fighting for?

    The restaurant chain's owners are currently embroiled in a bitter legal dispute
    Caribbean cuisine is becoming increasingly popular in the UK ... and there's more to it than jerk chicken at carnival

    In search of Caribbean soul food

    Caribbean cuisine is becoming increasingly popular in the UK ... and there's more to it than jerk chicken at carnival
    11 best face powders

    11 best face powders

    Sweep away shiny skin with our pick of the best pressed and loose powder bases
    England vs Norway: Roy Hodgson's hands tied by exploding top flight

    Roy Hodgson's hands tied by exploding top flight

    Lack of Englishmen at leading Premier League clubs leaves manager hamstrung
    Angel Di Maria and Cristiano Ronaldo: A tale of two Manchester United No 7s

    Di Maria and Ronaldo: A tale of two Manchester United No 7s

    They both inherited the iconic shirt at Old Trafford, but the £59.7m new boy is joining a club in a very different state
    Israel-Gaza conflict: No victory for Israel despite weeks of death and devastation

    Robert Fisk: No victory for Israel despite weeks of devastation

    Palestinians have won: they are still in Gaza, and Hamas is still there
    Mary Beard writes character reference for Twitter troll who called her a 'slut'

    Unlikely friends: Mary Beard and the troll who called her a ‘filthy old slut’

    The Cambridge University classicist even wrote the student a character reference
    America’s new apartheid: Prosperous white districts are choosing to break away from black cities and go it alone

    America’s new apartheid

    Prosperous white districts are choosing to break away from black cities and go it alone