An unusual sandstone relief of a horseman has been revealed during the latest excavations at Vindolanda, the Roman auxiliary fort just south of Hadrian’s Wall.
Two volunteers from Newcastle, Richie Milor and David Goldwater, who have been assisting the excavations at the fort for over 15 years, discovered the stone this past May, mere inches below the surface. They found the relief while helping to uncover a 4th-century building, and quickly realised its significance as it appeared much smaller and bumpier than the rest of the large smooth flagstones that made up the structure’s floor.
Measuring 160mm by 215mm, the stone depicts a naked male figure holding a spear and standing in front of either a horse or a donkey. While its origin is uncertain, it is believed the stone would originally have been fitted into a recess in the wall, and the building in which it was found is quite close to a large 4th-century cavalry barrack. Although it is currently unknown whether this connection is of any relevance, further investigation will hopefully provide some answers.
The figure represented in the relief was also not able to be immediately identified, but there are a few clues. Marta Alberti, one of the archaeologists overseeing the excavations, said: ‘The nakedness of the man means he is probably a god, rather than a mere cavalryman. He is carrying a spear in his left arm, a common attribute of the god of war, Mars. However, when you look at his head, the two almost circular features could be identified as wings: a common attribute of Mercury – god of travel. Horses and donkeys are also often associated with Mercury as a protector of travellers.’
Whether representing Mars, Mercury, or a third, currently unknown deity, this relief is unusual, and no other similar figures have yet been found at Vindolanda.
The stone is on display in the current finds exhibition at the Vindolanda museum, and will remain so for the rest of the 2021 season. Advanced booking is essential: www.vindolanda.com/tickets.