In 2016, excavation work in Leicester shed new light on the city’s Roman past, revealing remarkable evidence of luxurious dwellings, mosaic floors, and an elaborately decorated copper-alloy key handle featuring a caricature of a ‘barbarian’ under attack by a lion, together with four naked youths that possibly represent captives.
The artefact offers direct evidence for the Roman execution method of throwing prisoners to wild animals in an amphitheatre.
Findings from the artefact’s analysis were published this week in Britannia. However, Dr Gavin Speed, Project Manager at University of Leicester Archaeological Services, reported on the discovery of the handle in Current Archaeology 332 back in 2017, and explained the other exciting findings unearthed during the excavation.
You can read the full article here: Uncovering magnificent mosaics in the heart of Roman Leicester
Below is an extract from the article in which Dr Gavin Speed explores the gruesome significance of the key handle.
Images from the arena?
As well as mosaic floors, the townhouses yielded a wealth of other clues to the occupants’ tastes and interests, from vast quantities of pottery and coins to personal items like brooches, beads, and hair pins, as well as objects such as gaming pieces that hint at how these well-off individuals liked to spend their leisure time. None of these are unexpected finds for a high-status Roman residence – but one object, recovered from between two floor surfaces, was more enigmatic.
Cast in copper alloy with a square iron tang running through it, the ornately decorated artefact is slightly curved and fits comfortably in the palm of the hand, although it is surprisingly heavy. We have interpreted the find as a handle for a knife or key, but its decoration is of an exceptionally high standard. The main element shows a male figure, possibly a Roman caricature of a Germanic ‘barbarian’, dressed in trousers with a wide waistband and his neck-length hair swept straight back. The details of his face are strikingly well preserved: a short beard covers his chin from ear to ear, and we can also see his broad nose and outsized eyes. These staring eyes could suggest fear – certainly the man’s position is perilous, as he is shown under attack from a male lion, which clings to the unfortunate individual’s waist with its jaw gaping wide and its tail curled around his left leg.
This is not the full extent of the handle’s ornate artwork, though. The man is not depicted alone, but forms part of a complex arrangement of human bodies, standing on the heads of four naked, curly haired men. These are arranged in pairs, the outermost of each being larger and apparently older in appearance. Some are shown holding objects or animals. What could this tableau mean? The composition is surprisingly complex for such a small object (other known examples tend to have limited themselves to just one or two figures in their decoration), and it was clearly designed to exploit the handle’s three-dimensional possibilities, revealing different details as the artefact is turned. We have also captured these details in three dimensions for further study: an interactive digital model of the (partially cleaned) handle can be found at https://skfb.ly/68w99.
As for its subject matter, it has been suggested that the central figure might represent a damnatio ad bestias scene, depicting a condemned captive facing execution by being thrown to the wild beasts in the amphitheatre. Indeed, it would be particularly apt if the handle does represent some form of (albeit grisly) public entertainment, given that the townhouse in which it was found once stood just 50m from what may have been a Roman theatre.
According to ULAS, the key will be displayed at Leicester's Jewry Wall Museum following major refurbishment work expected to be completed by 2023.