Roman sculptures unearthed in Stoke Mandeville

The busts appear to have been intentionally discarded: the adult ones were broken between the head and torso, and only the head of the child survives.

Archaeologists excavating St Mary’s Old Church, Stoke Mandeville (see CA 370, 376, and 380), ahead of the construction of HS2, have unearthed a rare trio of stylistically Roman stone busts. The find has prompted a reassessment of the site, where a square, flint-walled structure beneath the ruins of the Norman church (previously thought to be the footings of an Anglo-Saxon ‘tower church’) has been reinterpreted as the foundations of a Roman building, perhaps a mausoleum.

Photo: © HS2 Ltd/middletonmann@HS2

The sculptures, representing a woman, a man, and a child, were found amid rubble (which was made up of chunks of flint and Roman roof tiles) on the south side of a V-shaped boundary ditch encircling the base of the square building, said Rachel Wood, an Archaeology Manager at Fusion JV, which has facilitated L-P Archaeology’s investigation of the site. The busts appear to have been intentionally discarded: the adult ones were broken between the head and torso, perhaps before deposition, and only the head of the child survives. The identity of the individuals has not been determined, but Rachel told CA that ‘they don’t look like emperors or empresses, and they certainly don’t look like deities, so they appear to be “normal Romans” – but obviously wealthy Romans.’

The team also found a hexagonal Roman glass jug in the ditch, as well as ‘around eight cremation urns spot-dated as Roman, which had evidently been thrown in and broken in situ,’ Rachel said. There is evidence of Roman and pre-Roman activity on a hill a few hundred metres east of the site, and the Roman and Norman buildings, moreover, were constructed on a natural mound, later enhanced, which may originally have been a Bronze Age burial site. ‘While the square building is now thought to have originated in the Roman period this doesn’t mean it didn’t have a Saxon use,’ Rachel explained, noting that the team has also found pieces of possibly Anglo-Saxon pottery at the site, as well as an Anglo-Saxon coin.

As for the possible mausoleum, ‘when exactly it was demolished, and by whom, is the million-dollar question,’ Rachel said. ‘The other enigma,’ she added, is the discovery of a human skeleton that appears to have been ‘thrown’ into the ditch, possibly with their hands tied behind their back. ‘There was no head,’ Rachel told CA, but ‘they have a bracelet around one wrist and four coins with them, so we should be able to date this person.’ These coins have been sent for cleaning, and the statues, too, will be cleaned and checked for paints and pigments during post-excavation analysis.