The Eagle Has Landed

It is times like this I really love London. It’s one of those rare cities that no matter where you dig, some history will be unearthed. You’ve probably heard about the latest finding, a Roman Eagle from nearly two thousand years ago; a stone-carved wonder that’s had the newspapers raving. “Exceptional” ran the headline of The Mirror.  “Superb” said the Guardian. The Museum of London, where the eagle now roosts (well for 6 months at least, and then I imagine it will be studied in depth or something), has called it “Extraordinary”.

With all this praise, I had to pop over to the Museum of London to witness this find in the flesh? In the stone? In real life.

Roman Eagle discovered in London
Roman Eagle discovered in London

The Eagle is stunning. The Cotswold limestone takes on a warm reddish hue in the lights of the museum or possibly just through my phone’s camera lens. Originally, the bird would have been richly decorated, but the paint has been washed away over the years. Nevertheless, the artistry in the work sings out, even without the finishing coat of paint. I wonder if there are any microscopic traces of pigment left on it? Perhaps the Museum could eventually give us an idea of what the Eagle could have looked like…

Feasting my eyes on every detail of this remarkable find  I found it increasingly hard to believe that just a few weeks ago it lay at the bottom of a ditch and how extraordinarily lucky we are that it was unearthed on the last day of an excavation on a development site at the Minories.

The level of detail in the carving is remarkable. So remarkable in fact that experts were reluctant to claim the Eagle for the Romans; “We were a bit nervous at first about proclaiming it as Roman, because the condition was so extraordinary,” Simon Davis, a supervisor at the dig site, said. Looking at it, it is so easy to start thinking that it couldn’t possibly be that old.

Suspicious Snakes

The Roman Eagle and the Snake
The Roman Eagle and the Snake

The stone has now turned from red to grey, but the colour isn’t what I want to talk about right now.

Look at what is in the bird’s beak. You can see a rather angry looking serpent, all fierce-eyed with a mouthful of teeth.

Michael Marshall, one of the experts who examined the statue before it went on display said “This may suggest that the artist had never got up close and personal with a snake. We did have a go at identifying the species of snake when we had some zoologists in – but they just said ‘it’s a snake’.”

The Museum believes that the Eagle, along with the snake, once adorned a rich mausoleum. Whose, exactly, remains a mystery.

The image of eagles and snakes is fairly common in funerary contexts, and snakes and eagles are loaded with symbolic meanings. Snakes are usually representations of “evil” whereas Eagles are “good” and “noble”. Eagles had additional meanings for Romans as they graced the Standards of the army. Maybe the person who commissioned this Eagle had a military connection?

The Eagle is on display for 6 months from the 30th October 2013 and admission to the Museum of London is completely free, so I urge you to see it while you can!

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