Lincolnshire’s Finds Liaison Officer, Dr Adam Daubney, today tweeted news of a very interesting new find recorded with the Portable Antiquities Scheme – an incomplete Roman copper alloy nail cleaner with the incised design of a peacock.
The peacock is sadly missing its head, but its neck, body, feet and tail are all clear. The tail is interesting as it is in its ‘resting’ position, jutting outwards behind the bird rather than in the act of displaying its colourful fan, as we are perhaps more used to seeing peacocks stereotypically depicted today. Was this simply a decision taken to best fit the design to the shape of the object or is there additional symbolism at work? Aside from being a very endearing image, the peacock was imbued with meaning in both Roman paganism and early Christianity.
To turn to the pagan imagery first, the peacock was primarily associated with the goddess Juno and often appeared in art as an attribute of the chief goddess of the classical pantheon. This female connection led to the peacock appearing on the reverses of coins issued by empresses, particularly in the 1st, 2nd and 3rd centuries. These coins invariably also show the peacock with tail folded, as in the image below. Peacocks also appear as painted imagery in tombs in the Balkans, most beautifully at Viminacium in Serbia, where they appear as a motif inside six separate tombs (Anđelković et al 2011). Consistently, here too they appear with tails folded. In this context, connections between the peacock and eternal life can be perceived, or at least between the bird and visions of a presumed paradise in the afterlife.
Sacred connections with the peacock continue into Christian belief, and it could be argued that such continuity of symbolism represents an appropriation of pagan imagery by early Christians. Peacocks are common motifs in post-Roman and Medieval Christian art – appearing in paintings, carvings, tombs and so on as symbols of the resurrection and immortality (the peacock’s flesh was believed to be incorruptible). That the bird’s spectacular plumage dramatically molts only to grow back again can be seen both as a warning against earthly vanity, but also to have faith that lost glories will be reborn.
The nail cleaner is 3rd or 4th Century in date, meaning that it was made at a time when Christianity is known to have begun gaining a foothold in Britain, but how confident can we be that it represents a Christian image? Can we say that all peacock motifs on objects represent an expression of Christian belief by their owners? This find is not the only example of a nail cleaner with a peacock design known from Lincolnshire or nearby counties – see for example here and here for other examples from North Lincolnshire recorded with the PAS and here for a nice example from South Yorkshire. Similar motifs appear on strap ends of the same date, for example this one from Essex, and on military style belt plates.
The wonderful example of a belt plate illustrated below was found at the Pen y Corddyn hillfort at Conwy and provides interesting additional symbolism. The plate of the buckle depicts two peacocks feeding from a tree and with fish above them. This combination of clear Christian imagery (peacocks, tree of life, fish) strongly suggests a Christian connection, though it has to be said that not all of the known examples of these buckle plates have such an accumulation of symbolism, and none have been found in a religious context archaeologically. They may simply be high status military buckles and the motifs the fashion of the day, but the potential Christian connections cannot be entirely ignored.
As is often the case with late Roman Christianity, then, we have another object with the fascinating potential to represent evidence of Christian belief in late Roman Lincolnshire, but which ultimately still leaves us with questions marks. Can we ascribe these peacock-decorated objects as having a religious message, either pagan or Christian, or were they simply a design fashionable for a period during the 3rd and 4th Centuries? I’ll let you all decide for yourselves.
Anđelković, Jelena; Rogić, Dragana and Nikolić, Emilija. 2011. Peacock as a sign in the late antique and early Christian art. Archaeology and Science 6. Center for New Technology, Archaeological Institute Belgrade