This week: Elusive Sculptures

Eroding Roman inscriptions on an ancient quarry wall at the River Gelt, Cumbria. They date to AD 207.

Very often, the stories we tell about archaeology are of objects being dug up, excavated, or otherwise unearthed.

With this in mind, it is perhaps no coincidence that the highest-profile archaeology-related TV and film projects of the past few years have respectively been titled Digging For Britain and The Dig.

Sometimes, however, little actual digging is required, because the object being searched for has been there all along – right in front of the eye, hiding in plain sight, just waiting to be discovered.

This week on The Past, we catch up on the work of the British Academy/Leverhulme Trust-funded Elusive Sculptures project, which set out three years ago to document previously unrecorded Roman carvings and inscriptions preserved at locations in the north of England. Despite the practical challenges posed by Covid-19, the project has certainly lived up to its name, adding 65 remarkable and hitherto elusive sculptures to the list of 500 stones from the area that had already been catalogued.

As project leaders Ian Haynes (also the guest on this week’s edition of The PastCast, our brilliant podcast) and Lindsay Allason-Jones reveal in the new issue of Current Archaeology, many of these carvings were not entirely unknown. Rather, they had – for one reason or another – previously eluded scholarly attention. Some were hard to get at, others had been misidentified, while yet more had simply been ignored. In one case, as we hear, a striking Romano-British figure of Hercules was even found in a Cumbrian pig sty, where for years it had been guarded by the building’s aggressive porcine inhabitants.

Elsewhere this week on The Past, we’ve been delving into the archives in search of more Roman artworks: we returned to Cumbria to inspect graffiti carved high on a Roman quarry wall by the 3rd-century soldiers who used its stone to repair nearby Hadrian’s Wall; and we travelled to Rome to marvel at the world’s largest private collection of classical sculpture, the extraordinary and much-disputed property of the Torlonia family, as it went on display to the public for the first time in more than 50 years.

And finally, if all that whets your appetite for more, don’t forget to have a go at our latest themed Quiz, which this week also focuses on Roman art. Good luck, and we hope you enjoy The Past!

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