Wednesday, 10 April 2013

Waterlogged wood and phallic pendants - new discoveries in Roman London

I have been reading with great interest about the new discoveries in London - the 'Pompeii of the North' as some newspapers would have it.  You can see the major news coverage from the BBC and Guardian through these links, but basically, excavations on the site of what will be Bloomberg's new HQ have been producing some rather amazing finds.

Bloomberg Place archaeological dig

Because the excavation is on the site of the River Walbrook (now no longer in existence), the deposits are waterlogged, providing an amazing level of preservation of organic material such as fences, shoes and over 100 fragments of writing tablets.  There has even been the discovery of a wooden door.

The site looks as if will prove to be of immense interest to those of us with an interest in Romano-British religious belief and cult practices.  The name 'Walbrook' is already well known as the site of the London Mithraeum (an underground 'temple' used by members of the cult to the Persian deity Mithras).  The original site was discovered in 1954 during post war building work, and these new excavations have uncovered a new section of the structure.  Hopefully, the finds will shed even more light on this already fascinating and important site.

Also of interest is the fact that the site has uncovered the largest collection to date of a type of pendants known as 'penis and fist pendants'.  These pendants are known mainly in bone, but are also occasionally found in bronze, and have a penis at one end and a hand at the other, making a gesture known as 'mano fico', or 'fig hand'.  This is when the thumb is pushed between the index and middle fingers, and also has rather sexual connotations.  Rather than being sexual in nature, however, both of these symbols were used as good luck symbols in the Roman period, and the pendants were believed to have been worn to ward off bad fortune (or the 'evil eye').  These particular pendants are associated with the Roman military, so it will be very interesting to see exactly what context this large collection comes from.  The picture below shows one of these pendants, found in Lincoln.

The plan is apparently to display the finds in the new complex when it opens in 2016, and I for one can't wait to see them.  In the meantime, I wish the Museum of London archaeologists the best of luck with the mammoth post-excavation process they now have to go through.  I'm sure the quality of the finds will make it a fascinating one, and I'm equally sure there will be many more revelations as the finds and environmental data are studied in more detail - particularly as the writing tables are deciphered.

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