While COVID-19 restrictions have undoubtedly presented significant challenges for the heritage community, there have also been some archaeological silver linings over the last 18 months. One of these was the noted uptick of reported Treasure finds in domestic settings during the first 2020 lockdown, as housebound individuals entertained themselves by digging in their gardens (see CA 372), but the easing of restrictions last year sparked opportunities too for new research and new discoveries. At Wall in Staffordshire, once an important Roman staging post on Watling Street, this included illuminating analysis of an unusual 1st-century lead figurine that, since its discovery almost a century ago, has been variously interpreted as an enslaved person and as a wrestler. Now new research by English Heritage curator Cameron Moffett suggests that this identification should be amended once more.
‘To a certain extent, this is a COVID story,’ Cameron said. ‘At the beginning of the pandemic, curatorial staff at Wall’s site museum took some key objects off display and moved them into secure storage as everything closed. Then, when we anticipated things reopening, I thought we should take some new photos of the figurine, as we only had old, unclear images in our records.’
While examining the new images, Cameron noticed evidence of a previously unobserved socket running through the figure’s clenched right hand, which she believes may have originally held a separately cast weapon, perhaps a bronze spear.In light of this discovery, in a report set to be published in the Transactions of the Staffordshire Archaeological and Historical Society (see ‘Further reading’ on p.27), Cameron suggests that the man should be reinterpreted as a warrior, and explores his significance as part of a very small group of depictions of black African people known from Roman Britain.
Finding the figurine
The circumstances of the Wall figurine’s discovery have long been obscure, though it is thought to have been found in the 1920s, with its first written mention coming in a short archaeological round-up in the Transactions of the North Staffordshire Field Club for 1928-1929. This note speaks of an artefact that had recently come into the possession of a Miss E B Henderson, a local woman who was an influential member of the local archaeological community, and who had purchased the field containing the remains of Roman Wall in 1924. (A decade later, she sold this land to the National Trust, who retain ownership today, while English Heritage cares for the site.) The round-up does not make it clear where the figurine was found, but as the equivalent summary for 1926 describes Henderson’s ‘indomitable perseverance’ in investigating a Roman cemetery to the west of Wall (just outside the town limits, in accordance with Roman tradition), this might suggest that the artefact had come from one of around 30 cremations found during her excavation.
If the figurine was a grave good from a cremation burial, this would explain some unusual elements of its appearance. At first glance it seems to depict a man sitting cross-legged, but it is now thought that he had originally stood upright, and that his legs have buckled after coming into contact with intense heat – something that could occur when hot pyre ashes were poured into the burial pit, and over any artefacts accompanying the funerary urn. Cameron estimates that, with straight legs, the figurine would have originally stood c.115mm tall, rather than the c.55mm it currently measures in its ‘seated’ form.
‘The most exciting thing about this research is it has been possible to reclaim some evidence of the figurine’s final context at Wall,’ Cameron said. ‘It has been a case of piecing together lots of little scrappy references to work out where it came from. Even the first mention of it coming into the site museum isn’t until the 1950s, when it is listed in a guidebook.’
As for the figurine’s subject, it shows an adult male wearing an armlet on each upper arm and a necklace of large beads, with traces of a possible garment or girdle visible around his waist, though heat damage has made this latter aspect less clear. Despite this damage, though, the artefact was evidently created with careful attention to detail: the muscles of the man’s back are well modelled, and his facial features and hair are clear enough to suggest that he represents a person of sub-Saharan African origin.
In the Transactions of 1928-1929, E B Henderson interprets the man as an enslaved person wearing a collar, whose ‘face bears an expression of suffering’, but in the 1990s the figurine was reinterpreted as a wrestler – due to his burly frame and apparently characteristic pose – and his ‘collar’ as an item of adornment rather than one of restraint. Now this interpretation has changed once more, as Cameron suggests that we should imagine the individual as a dignified warrior, standing tall and armed for action.
Images of individuals from sub-Saharan Africa are not common in Romano-British art, although, as we will explore here, examples do survive in the archaeological record. They are more common in the wider Roman world, though, where – like so many of the Empire’s cultural interests – they have their origins in ancient Greece.
In Greek art, black African people appear as the subjects of sculptures, and in pottery – both as painted figures on flasks used to hold oil or perfume, and in the form of entire ceramic vessels crafted to represent human heads. Greek culture heavily influenced the Etruscans, Iron Age inhabitants of Italy who were subsequently absorbed into the Roman Empire, and as Rome’s own territories expanded into Greek-speaking areas, it was also enthusiastically accepted into almost every sphere of life.
From these early origins, artefacts depicting black people gained popularity in the Roman world as imperial expansion into North Africa brought Rome increasingly into contact with the indigenous communities who lived south of the Sahara (particularly during the 1st century BC conquest of Egypt, which employed auxiliary troops from this area in its army). Expressions of this interest included small figurines depicting athletes, performers, and servants. Many of these are quite generic, perhaps depicting stock characters who might be familiar from popular culture, though others are sufficiently individualised to suggest that they might be portraits of specific notable people. Gaul seems to have been a key centre for the manufacture of these objects, and after the Roman conquest of Britain the troops and officials who crossed the Channel to occupy and administer the new province brought new cultural motifs with them. It is thought that the figurine from Wall may have originally come from the Continent in this way, but it forms a very select group of known artefacts of this type.
Including the Wall example, just five Roman figurines thought to represent black African people have been identified in Britain. Most of these are metal-detectorist finds from decades ago, and details for some of them are scarce, but four are documented in a 2012 study of Romano-British metal figures by Emma Durham (the research can be read for free online; see ‘Further reading’). They represent a diverse range of subjects and a broad span of locations. One, from the Bath area, is thought to depict a male acrobat or dancer, though the lead artefact is corroded and fragmentary, missing its legs, right arm, and the lower portion of its left arm. Emma notes that the figurine was associated with a villa site, though its precise context is unknown.
Another artefact, discovered near Saffron Walden in Essex and dated to the 2nd century, depicts a sleeping boy sitting on the ground, rendered in copper alloy. Recorded on the Portable Antiquities Scheme’s database (search for ESS-6F60D3 at http://www.finds.org.uk), the child is depicted in loving detail, shown in a realistic pose with one leg bent up and his hand and cheek resting on his knee. His facial features, shown in relaxed slumber with his lips parted and his eyes closed, are carefully moulded, as are the details of his chest and stomach, and individual fingers and toes. The precise purpose of the artefact is unknown, but the boy has a slightly off-centre circular socket in the top of his head, which may have accommodated a loop to allow him to serve as some kind of weight, or a soldered spike to hold a candle or some kind of lamp.
This latter association brings to mind the popular Hellenistic image of the slave or servant boy who has fallen asleep waiting for his master to leave a party, clutching the lantern that he will use to guide them home. Marble sculptures of such child-guides were common in the Classical world, and while the motif did not typically depict people of sub-Saharan African origin, the sleeping form of this youthful figurine might suggest it is supposed to evoke this theme.
Finally, from Peppard, in Oxfordshire, comes another metal-detector find that is now housed by Reading Museum. It depicts a youth in a heavily draped, short-sleeved tunic, who wears a possible sash tied around his head and carries a club in his right hand, which he holds slung across the back of his neck in a jaunty pose.
The fifth figurine is not listed by Emma Durham, but is described by Hella Eckardt in her 2014 book Objects and Identities: Roman Britain and the North-Western Provinces, where she considers other representations of black people in Roman Britain. The copper-alloy figurine was found by a metal-detectorist in Strathclyde, around 200m east of Bar Hill fort, and although today the artefact is in private hands and no image of it is known, it is thought to show the upper half of a young dancer or acrobat.
Artefacts and individuals
Romano-British representations of sub-Saharan people were not limited to figurines, however. Hella Eckardt’s detailed exploration of artefacts also includes a number of glass drinking vessels that have been mould-blown to depict the heads of black African people. While these fragile objects often only survive in a very fragmentary state, a complete 1st-century version now held by the Met in New York (it is a 19th-century acquisition of unstated provenance, though a similar example in the Petit Palais in Paris is associated with Roman-occupied Phoenicia) testifies to how detailed these depictions were. They also seem to have had a geographically wide appeal, and a particular association with military sites: British examples are known from places as disparate as Caerleon and Caersws in Gwent and Powys; Camelon in Strathclyde; and London.
Another particularly striking object on the same theme is a bronze flask or balsamarium thought to have been used to hold oil for use in bathing. Now held by the British Museum, it is decorated with the delicately rendered faces of three African children, and was one of several high-status grave goods in a richly furnished cremation burial discovered at Bayford in Kent. Dated to the 2nd century, together with the glass cremation urn the grave also contained three glass vessels, a bronze jug and patera, a bronze lamp, and nine samian and two other pottery vessels.
As this assemblage epitomises, many known artefacts depicting people from sub-Saharan Africa were undeniably luxury items, intended to hold elite or expensive materials, and to express the taste and social standing of their owners. Although the depictions do emphasis physical difference in their designs, their implied ‘otherness’ is thought to represent fascination rather than prejudice, Cameron said. ‘They are exotic objects, but they are very beautiful,’ she added. ‘There is nothing pejorative in the depiction of the people they represent.’
It was not only artistic ideas and artefacts that travelled within the Roman Empire, of course. Significant numbers of people moved between the provinces, whether as soldiers, officials, merchants, or their families, and this was particularly driven by the army. Troops were drawn from conquered territories all over the Roman world, including from North Africa – and inscriptions provide clear evidence that some British garrisons, notably on Hadrian’s Wall, included men from what is now Libya, Algeria, Tunisia, and Morocco. Civilian migration is less well documented, aside from the funerary monuments of the elite, but scientific advances including analysis of stable isotopes and ancient DNA are adding more to this picture.
One individual identified in this way is a young woman who was buried in York in the 4th century. The stone sarcophagus in which she was laid speaks of her social status, as do the expensive artefacts that accompanied her – including elephant ivory jewellery that led to her becoming known to researchers as the ‘Ivory Bangle Lady’ – and analysis of her remains by the University of Reading revealed that she had North African ancestry. An aDNA study is now under way, exploring her descent; we will bring you news of what this reveals in a future issue.
That Roman York had inhabitants with African origins should not be surprising; the emperor Septimius Severus, himself born in Leptis Magna in modern Libya, was based in York for three years until his death in AD 211, and had brought considerable numbers of troops with him to Britain. Nevertheless, we do not have a complete picture; analysis has historically tended to focus on unusual or high-status burials like that of the Ivory Bangle Lady, and much less is known about diversity in populations of more ‘ordinary’ social status. It is hoped that future cemetery studies will shed more light on this.
Travel from sub-Saharan Africa to Roman Britain appears to have been rather less common (as this region, having never been conquered, did not experience the same military-motivated migration, Cameron said), but a small number of people with black African ancestry have been identified in the archaeological record. One such person was a 4th-century woman who had spent her early years in the Mediterranean and was laid to rest in the London’s Lant Street cemetery. She was featured in the Museum of London Docklands’ ‘Roman Dead’ exhibition (CA 339), and she was not alone; the museum also included the truncated remains of an older man who had grown up and died in London, but who had black African heritage.
Although we currently only have fleeting glimpses of these individuals within the archaeological record, it is possible that the inhabitants of Roman Britain – at least in large urban centres, and places with a large military presence – could have encountered African individuals beyond artistic representations. The recent reinterpretation of the Wall figurine adds to this picture of shifting perceptions – and raises questions about why it was buried with its owner. ‘The fact that it may have been used as a grave good suggests that it was seen as an object of significance by the person it was buried with,’ Cameron said. ‘We don’t know what that significance was, though it is tempting to think there may have been some kind of family relevance there. That is, of course, just pleasant speculation on my part, however.’
Grateful thanks to Emma Durham, Hella Eckardt, and Joseph Kennedy for their advice while putting this article together.
C Moffett (2022) ‘The lead figurine of a sub-Saharan African from Wall (Letocetum): an updated interpretation’, Transactions of the Staffordshire Archaeological and Historical Society 53: forthcoming.
E Durham (2012) ‘Depicting the gods: metal figurines in Roman Britain’, Internet Archaeology 31: https://doi.org/10.11141/ia.31.2.
H Eckardt (2014) Objects and Identities: Roman Britain and the North-Western Provinces (Oxford University Press, ISBN 978-0199693986, £95).
To read more about Wall and the warrior figurine, see www.english-heritage.org.uk/visit/places/wall-roman-site/history/lead-figurine. ALL IMAGES courtesy of Historic England, unless otherwise stated.