The recent conservation of a small figurine thought to represent the Celtic god Cernunnos has revealed new details that call the identification into question.
Found during National Trust and Oxford Archaeology East excavations at Wimpole Hall in Cambridgeshire (see CA 348), the figurine (pictured) is 5cm tall and was one of over 300 metal objects recovered from a late Iron Age/early Roman rural settlement discovered on the estate. It would have formed the handle of a spatula, perhaps used to mix medicines or to smooth wax for writing tablets. Other finds from the site, including horse harness fittings, Roman military uniform fittings, and imported pottery, suggest that this settlement may have been at the centre of a strong trading network or the site of some depositional activity.
The figurine was identified as Cernunnos because it was holding a torc – an item frequently associated with this deity. But Cernunnos usually appears with horns, and after cleaning it was clear there were never any attached to this object. Instead, what was revealed was the figure’s face, moustache, and details of his hair. It is now believed that it may represent an as-yet unknown Celtic deity.
Chris Thatcher, Oxford Archaeology East, said: ‘The recovery of the figurine from this site is fortuitous. We have uncovered good evidence that the locality became a focus for activity between 50 BC and AD 80. This was a period of rapid change and flux, and the figurine’s allusion to power and control – bearing a torc and forming the handle of a writing or medicinal implement – reflect the forces behind this upheaval. His hybridised style encapsulates something of the complex cultural interactions of the period.’
Shannon Hogan, National Trust Archaeologist for the East of England, said: ‘This figure is an exceptional find and, thanks to careful conservation and cleaning, we can now see some remarkable detail. His hairstyle and moustache might be indicative of current trends or perhaps “typical” for depictions of this particular deity. The artefact dates to the 1st century AD and, while possibly of Roman manufacture, exhibits very Celtic traits such as his oval eyes. The torc it is holding is still clear and a small recess at the centre is suggestive of a decorative inlay, now lost. We have extremely limited knowledge of what ordinary people of England at that time looked like, so this beautifully detailed figure might just be giving us a tantalising glimpse into their appearance, or how they imagined their gods.’