Mare nostrum, Old Basing, Hampshire

The handful of sculptures and mosaics depicting this god that are known, however, include one on the pediment of the temple of Sulis Minerva in Bath.

This striking Roman object depicts the god Oceanus – in Classical mythology, a Titan who was the son of Uranus and Gaia, deities representing the sky and the earth. It was discovered in September 2020 in Old Basing, Hampshire, and was included in the most recent annual report of the Portable Antiquities Scheme.

The face is believed to be a decorative fitting for a large piece of furniture or other household item (its rectangular backing is 119.1mm long), but it is hard to say for certain as no similar objects have yet been discovered in Britain, and there appear to be no close parallels from the Continent either. Images of Oceanus are uncommon in Britain – his likeness is more commonly found on artefacts from the western Mediterranean (the Romans knew the Mediterranean as Mare Nostrum, ‘our sea’). The handful of sculptures and mosaics depicting this god that are known, however, include one on the pediment of the temple of Sulis Minerva in Bath.

The Old Basing example is well preserved, showing the exquisite details of Oceanus’ face, including his hair – formed of seaweed – and two kete (sea monsters) on either side of his head. The whole object is made of copper alloy, except for a large bolt or axis spindle made of iron on the back; some of the incisions along the strap still bear traces of a white metal inlay or coating, indicating that this piece was probably once finely decorated. The hollows of his eyes suggest that they were once fitted with another material, too.

Excavations at the findspot by Professor Mike Fulford from the University of Reading found that the artefact had been placed beneath a cobbled floor, where it was close to a cow skull, which also appears to have been deliberately deposited. The floor itself was sealed by a layer of soil containing pottery dating to the 2nd century AD, suggesting that this fitting is earlier in date.

More information about the fitting can be found on the PAS database: https://finds.org.uk/database/artefacts/record/id/1010557.
Text: K Krakowka
Image: Surrey County Council
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