Vanity or Ritual? A Roman handheld mirror from Linwood

One of the most interesting Roman finds from Lincolnshire in recent years is a copper-alloy hand mirror, found at Linwood near Market Rasen in 2015. It was reported to the Portable Antiquities Scheme (LIN-0B4401) and subsequently acquired by The Collection museum (LCNCC : 2016.29).

lin0b4401

Copper-alloy hand mirror from Linwood, showing the back (left) and reflective surface (right). Copyright Portable Antiquities Scheme

The mirror is 12cm in diameter, and the back is decorated with five raised concentric circles. The images show the powdery blue/green corrosion products on the mirror at its discovery, but there is no trace of any enamelled inlay. The reflective surface of the mirror is convex and has a slightly flattened rim. There is no handle, or sign of where one was attached, so the mirror may have been entirely handheld, or fitted inside a wooden frame.

Scanning Electron Microscope analysis carried out by the Portable Antiquities Scheme has revealed that the surface was originally tinned on both sides.

edxtinlayeronfront1

SEM analysis of the face of the mirror. Copyright Portable Antiquities Scheme

High magnification photography has revealed regular striations, at right angles to each other, on the reflective surface, representing careful polishing – the owner, or perhaps their slave, taking good care of a valuable object.

lin0b4401_higher_mag

Striations on the reflective surface. Copyright Portable Antiquities Scheme

The mirror is of Lloyd-Morgan’s Group E, and dates to the 3rd century AD. Mirrors of this type on the continent are mostly known from the frontiers and they are believed to have been manufactured in Trier, Cologne or perhaps both. They are a rare find in Britain, and may represent an owner able to afford a luxury import, but perhaps instead someone who had traveled from Germany and brought their mirror with them. Mirrors in general are more commonly found on military and urban sites than rural ones, and sometimes in high status female burials. Does this mirror, from a rural location, represent the property of an individual with military or other high status connections?

Although mirrors are practical items – the desire to observe our own appearance is nothing new – they can also be viewed from a ritual perspective. Connections between mirrors’ reflections and the human soul have been reiterated in mythology and fairy tales across the world for many centuries. The religious power of water in Bronze Age and Iron Age Europe, for example, may relate in part to its conflicting combination of life-giving, life-taking and reflective properties – it was a gateway to the world of the ancestors. In the Roman world, female devotees of the goddess Isis are referenced carrying mirrors during rituals, and the cult of Dionysus involved central themes of transformation and metamorphosis of which the mirror was a potent symbol. The bad fortune associated with the breaking of a mirror still persists to this day.

Although ‘ritual’ is a dangerous word in archaeology, and we should of course not automatically imbue an object of such practical function with religious significance, understanding the symbolic resonance that such objects could carry is important. Objects need not be seen as either uniquely functional or religious, as they could easily have been perceived as simultaneously being both. The Linwood mirror was discovered face down with no associated finds. Perhaps its burial, unlikely to have been a casual loss, was a deliberate act to end its active life?

Mirrors appear as an element of depictions of women, both real and mythological, from Roman Britain, though not currently from Lincolnshire. For example, a tombstone fragment from Chester depicts a lady holding a mirror, while her maidservant holds other toilet implements. On the ‘Venus’ mosaic from the villa at Rudston, East Yorkshire, the goddess appears to be in the act of dropping her mirror.

Although mirrors were valuable items which offered the practical ability to view one’s own reflection – an ability we take entirely for granted – we should not discount the role they placed in identity construction, as social markers, and even as objects of ritual.

chester-tombstone

Tombstone fragment from Chester. Copyright Grosvenor Museum

rudstone-venus-mirror

Mirror falling(?) from the hand of Venus. Rudston villa. Now in the Hull and East Riding Museum

 


References

Allason-Jones, L. 2005. Women in Roman Britain. Council for British Archaeology

Daubney, A. 2016. 50 Finds from Lincolnshire. Amberley

Lloyd-Morgan, G. 1981, Roman mirrors and the third century, in A. King and M. Henig, The Roman West in the Third Century: Contributions from Archaeology and History. BAR International Series 109

Taylor, R. 2008. The Moral Mirror of Roman Art. Cambridge University Press

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