Roman figurine re-identified as an African warrior

It was likely included as a grave good in an interred cremation burial.

New research by English Heritage has revealed the true identity of a Roman figurine.

Originally thought to depict an enslaved individual, and later a wrestler, it is now understood to represent an African warrior.

Image: English Heritage.

The figurine, dated to the first century AD, was unearthed in a Roman cemetery at Wall Roman Site, Staffordshire, in the 1920s.

Made of lead and measuring 55mm high, the figure wears an armlet on each upper arm and a necklace of large beads.

It was likely included as a grave good in an interred cremation burial.

The figurine was initially thought to represent an enslaved person, as their facial expression was construed as one of suffering. A new interpretation then arose in the 1990s, with researchers believing the figure’s apparent seated position – indicated by its folded legs – resembled more closely the stance of a wrestler.

However, recent examination of the figurine by Cameron Moffett, Curator at English Heritage, revealed a previously unobserved socket in its right hand which would have held a weapon, likely a bronze spear.

Research also uncovered that, at some point, exposure to heat – which perhaps occurred during the Roman ritual of pouring ash from the funeral pyre over the deceased’s grave – caused the lower half of the figurine to melt and fold.

‘This object actually depicts an African warrior, standing tall and carrying a spear,’ said Cameron Moffett.

This image of an African man holding a spear is quite a common motif in Classical art.

He added: ‘and the fact that it was a grave good indicates that it would have been a significant possession to its owner.’

Historic England Wall was an important staging post on Watling Street – the Roman military road to North Wales. Image: English Heritage.

Though the figurine’s provenance is undetermined, it was most likely produced on the Continent, possibly close to the Mediterranean.

With the huge influx of people into Britain following the Roman conquest, it could be that this figurine was carried across thousands of miles, and finally found its resting place in Staffordshire alongside its owner.

Black Africans were popular subjects for Roman works of art, and their depictions in sculpture and on ceramics are relatively common on the Continent. However, this figurine of an African is just one of five identified from Roman Britain, and thus offers new insight into the early history of black African presence on the island.

It is currently on display at Wall Roman Site’s museum until the end of October when the museum will close for the winter.