Damned memory? Evidence for imperial statuary from Lincoln

Lincoln does not, on current evidence, have the direct connections with Roman imperial power that some other Romano-British towns do. For example, Colchester saw the arrival of Claudius (AD41-54), and York as the northern legionary base has links with Septimius Severus (AD193-211) and Constantine I (AD306-337). Lincoln, does, however, have an interesting body of evidence for public statuary which may well be imperial in nature, some of which has come from very recent finds. Evidence of such statuary is particularly rare in Britain, not least because statues depicting emperors, gods and prominent citizens are most likely to have been in bronze, rather than marble, and therefore very easily recycled.

Statuary was an important element of the architecture of classical Roman towns and a fundamental way for those in authority, from emperors down to prominent local citizens, to enhance and display their status and wealth. Although towns in Roman Britain may not have engaged in such practices to the extent of their eastern and Mediterranean counterparts, it most definitely occurred. Such statuary was most likely to have been placed in prominent locations such as the forum, or in the case of local dignitaries, close to buildings they had sponsored or repaired. Excavations at the forum at Lincoln between 1972 and 1979 uncovered evidence of stone statue bases as part of the earliest (early 2nd Century) forum.

Lincoln column base

Paving slabs and rectangular statue base at the forum in Lincoln. Copyright City of Lincoln Council

Perhaps the best known fragment of statuary from Lincoln, and indeed for a long time the only fragment, is the life-sized bronze left foreleg of a horse. It was discovered in the 18th Century, though sadly the exact findspot is not known. The foreleg displays clear evidence of damage. The leg seems to have come away from the main body of the statue through a strong blow, but perhaps at a point of weakness in the casting. Blobs of molten metal are visible on the surface, leading to the suggestion that it had been involved in a fire, and the missing front of the hoof has been removed by repeated strikes with a small chisel (Richmond 1944). Such evidence of damage and recycling is a consistent factor in the statue fragments to be discussed here, of which more later.

Richmond (1944) was of the opinion that the foreleg came from an equestrian statue rather than a chariot group because of the molten blobs of metal on the surface. He reasoned that a chariot group would be more likely to have been placed atop an archway or gate whereas an equestrian statue would have been placed on a lower plinth, overshadowed by buildings, and therefore in a position to be damaged by falling molten material. He did not, however, consider the possibility that the molten material appeared as part of the process of recycling the statue itself.

horse-leg

Bronze horse foreleg. Copyright Society of Antiquaries of London

The equestrian statue link is continued through a series of bronze fragments discovered by a metal detector user at North Carlton in 2010. They were reported to the Portable Antiquities Scheme and subsequently donated to The Collection in Lincoln. The finder deserves huge credit for recognising the potential of the fragments, for their appearance belies their significance. The fragments have been studied by Dr Kosmas Dafas of University College London and his full report on them is forthcoming. He has confirmed, however, that the fragments come from a life-sized equestrian statue, and represent sections of the neck, cheek, mandible, muzzle, mane and reins. Two pieces of irregularly-shaped lead found with the fragments may represent material used to support the statue or attach it to the base.

A particularly interesting point to note is that Dr Dafas believes that the statue suffered severe damage at some point in the past, consistent with it having fallen or even being deliberately toppled. As with the antiquarian horse foreleg, the potential interpretations of such deliberate damage are discussed below.

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North Carlton equestrian statue neck fragment. Copyright Portable Antiquities Scheme

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North Carlton equestrian statue muzzle fragment. Copyright Portable Antiquities Scheme

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North Carlton equestrian statue mane fragments. Copyright Portable Antiquities Scheme

Some of the pieces have rectangular patches where small inserts were once placed, perhaps to replace areas of the casting that were untidy or had become damaged. There is an interesting article on evidence of repairs to ancient bronze statues here.

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North Carlton equestrian statue fragment showing inset for rectangular insert. Copyright Portable Antiquities Scheme

Our third piece of evidence is rather more subjective in terms of being certain that it originated as part of a life-sized statue, but it does have the benefit of coming from a secure archaeological context. During excavations as part of the renovation of Lincoln Castle in 2013, a bronze eagle wing with incised feathers was discovered in a late 1st Century context. Eagles are of course a prominent element of Roman imperial imagery, representing the god Jupiter and, by association, the army and emperor. This eagle’s wing did not come from a military standard (sorry IX Legion conspiracy fans), but perhaps did form part of a larger imperial statue. The late 1st Century date is of great relevance here, as I’ll come to in a moment. Note that, as with the other examples, the wing displays evidence of being chopped off.

castle-eagle-wing

Eagle wing excavated at Lincoln Castle. Copyright Lincolnshire County Council

The final, and most recently discovered, piece of evidence is also one of the most appealing as it is the only fragment representing the human body. Discovered in 2015 near Long Leys Road, the fragment is a slightly larger than life-sized human finger, hollow cast and making some form of extended gesture, perhaps representing oratory. The irregular break suggests that the finger was snapped off rather than cut or chiseled.

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Copper alloy finger. Copyright Portable Antiquities Scheme

So where does all this lead us? None of the fragments have been found in the location where the statue will have originally stood, and instead represent the places where the fragments ended up in the Roman period or even later, presumably intended for recycling. We cannot say for certain whether any of these fragments represent parts of the same statue, or indeed who any of the individuals depicted in the statues were.

Although bronze was valuable, and the recycling of older and unwanted statues likely to have occurred, there is one tantalising suggestion as to why the statue fragments all bear evidence of damage and dismantling. Lincoln was founded as a Colonia under the emperor Domitian, we believe at some point between AD84 and AD96. Domitian was a rather unpopular emperor (especially if Suetonius and Tacitus are to be believed) and after his death in AD96 suffered damnatio memoriae – being effectively deleted from history, his inscriptions erased and his statues torn down. It is likely that the citizens of Lincoln will have raised statues to their imperial founder, and equally likely that those statues will have been pulled down following Domitian’s assassination. The close dating of the eagle’s wing is therefore particularly significant, as it was contemporary with that event. The image of an eagle surmounting a globe was a motif used by the Flavian dynasty (of which Domitian was the last member), and we can perhaps imagine the eagle wing forming part of a statue, maybe even sitting in the emperor’s hand.

vespasian-eagle-as-hertfordshire

As of Domitian’s father Vespasian from Hertfordshire with reverse of an eagle surmounting a globe. Copyright Portable Antiquities Scheme

We have a wonderful description of an equestrian statue of Domitian at Rome, preserved in a sycophantic poem by Statius (Silvae 1.1). In that statue, Domitian held his right hand out in a gesture of pacification (perhaps reflected in our single extended finger?) and a statue of his patron deity Minerva in his left. It is not impossible that a Lincoln statue could have seen an eagle replace the goddess. The whole poem is rather long, but the following extract gives a flavour of the statue, and perhaps even echoes the emotions that the statue may have imbued in those gazing up at a counterpart of it in Lincoln’s forum:

“Your right hand forbids conflict: Minerva weighs
Lightly in your left, Medusa on her shield extended
As if to urge on your steed; the goddess never chose
A finer place to stand, not even when Jove held her.
Your chest is wide enough to bear the world’s cares,
Temese gave all from her exhausted mines to forge it.
A cloak hangs at your back, a broad sword protects
Your flank, large as that blade with which Orion
Threatens on wintry nights, and terrifies the stars.
While your charger, matching its master’s thoughts
And gaze, lifts its head and threatens a fierce ride,
Mane bristling at its neck, life pulsing through its
Shoulders, its broad flanks readied for the spur.
Instead of a vacuous clod of earth, its bronze hoof
Paws at the flowing tresses of captive Rhine.
Arion, Adrastus’ steed, would have feared him,
While Castor’s Cyllarus trembles, as he gazes
From the nearby shrine. This horse loyal to the bit,
Will know no other rein, serving one star alone.
The earth can scarcely bear the weight, straining
At such a burden; even though an enduring base
Supports it, that might uphold a crowning mountain
Peak, or even withstand Atlas’ knee”

(Translation by A.S. Kline, 2012)

 


References

Richmond, I.A. 1944. Three Fragments of Roman Official Statues, from York, Lincoln, and Silchester. Antiquaries Journal, Vol XXIV, Nos 1-2

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One thought on “Damned memory? Evidence for imperial statuary from Lincoln

  1. Pingback: Votive mutilation? An unusual rolled Roman coin | Roman Lincolnshire Revealed

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