Archaeologists investigating St Mary’s Old Church in Stoke Mandeville in advance of the construction of HS2 have uncovered a rich variety of finds and structural remains at the site of the Norman ruin, including the foundations of a possible Roman mausoleum and medieval engravings interpreted as sundials or ‘witch marks’ (see CA 370, 376, 380, and 382). Among the most stunning finds to emerge from the investigations, though, were a rare trio of stylistically Roman stone busts found last October (CA 382). These are now being cleaned off-site as part of a conservation process that has revealed intriguing new details about the finds and their purpose.
The sculptures, representing a woman, a man, and a child, were found in the rubble layer of a circular ditch by L-P Archaeology, who excavated the site on behalf of HS2’s enabling works contractor Fusion JV. The figures were then removed for specialist dry cleaning to dislodge surface dirt, and they are now in the process of being wet-cleaned; so far, cleaning the woman’s head has revealed delicate facial features, including tear ducts and the curvature of her lips (above).
As Brooke Pollio, a conservator at L-P Archaeology, indicates in a video recently published on HS2’s YouTube channel, however, one of the most striking discoveries made during the cleaning has been the intricately carved design of the woman’s hairstyle. ‘Previously, we could only see the rows of braids framing her face because the back of her head was completely covered in a thick layer of dirt. Now we’re able to see the way that her hairstyle was put together,’ Brooke comments. ‘The level of detail that can be seen on the female head and its excellent state of preservation suggest that these statues were housed inside a building, rather than being exposed to the elements outside.’
The busts have been assessed by Roman sculpture specialists Dr Penny Coombe, Dr Kevin Hayward, and Dr Martin Henig, whose preliminary analysis suggests that the sculptures – made of a high-quality Cotswold Bibury-type stone – could be representations of a family group from inside a Roman mausoleum. The experts have indicated that while the busts could possibly date from as early as the end of the 1st century AD, more portraits depicting parallel hairstyles are known from the early 2nd century AD. The only comparable, near-contemporary sculpture made from the same stone is that of the oversized head of a woman, possibly another funerary monument, which is currently on display at the Roman Baths in Bath.
The statues have suffered discoloration in places due to contact with other materials in the ground, and no evidence of pigmentation or inscriptions has been detected during conservation. Unexpectedly, though, the team did find patterns carved into the sides of the statues’ torsos. ‘Instead of arms, we have beautifully carved leafy motifs,’ Brooke notes. ‘These were completely covered in dirt prior to cleaning and it was a wonderful surprise to see them revealed during the process. The leafy motifs on the sides are not to our knowledge known from other portrait busts but primarily paralleled on the sides of some altars, including one example from London, carved in Cotswold stone, and others from Germany.’
Expert assessment of the artefacts is ongoing and further details will be published in due course. The HS2 YouTube video, which features the busts, information on the cleaning process, and further items found alongside the sculptures (including cremation urns and a large Roman vessel made of glass) can be found at https://youtu.be/4RCwsCi_44A.