The discovery of the eastern colonnade of Lincoln’s forum in 1878 still ranks as one of the most important archaeological finds in the city’s history. When George Allis began digging the foundations of a new house on Bailgate in late April 1878, he could little have suspected that he would soon be discovering the base of a large, sandstone Roman column, or that further work would eventually lead to an entire colonnade of 19 such columns, subsequently to be understood as the eastern edge of the town’s forum. This dramatic discovery is worthy of a blog post in itself at some point in the future, but here I want to focus on just one rather unusual object discovered during the excavations – a ceramic mould depicting a side-on female portrait.
The mould was discovered ‘close to the base of one of the columns’ (Arch J CIII) by Mr Allis and remained in his family until 1979 when it was placed on permanent loan to the museum by his daughter. Sadly, it is not known which exact column it was found close to and the mould is not mentioned in any of the discussions of the colonnade published in the years following its discovery (see some of these on my links and resources pages).
The mould has been made by pressing a 3 dimensional object, believed to have been a steelyard weight but more of that below, into clay, taking an impression of one half of it. Although there may have been another half to the mould, enabling a 3 dimensional replica to have been cast, it is equally likely that this mould was all there ever was. As the modern cast below demonstrates, this single mould might have been used to produce a side-on bust, perhaps to be used as a decorative attachment for furniture. Ultimately, though, the function of any resulting casts remains a mystery.
The reverse of the mould shows how crudely it has been made, but it has preserved a large quantity of fingerprints, a nice personal connection to the individual manufacturer.
The mould has always been believed to have been made from a copper alloy steelyard weight. Steelyards are simple balance arms, with the movable weight often being decorative. Steelyard weights are common finds from Roman Britain, and often take the form of the heads of humans or deities. Most, however, are between 3 and 6cm in length, whereas the Lincoln mould measures 13cm – making it among the largest steelyard weights yet known from Roman Britain.
Other very large steelyard weights include this one of a young satyr, measuring 9.1cm, recorded with the PAS but sadly with a weak Norfolk provenance. The British Museum contains another interesting parallel in the form of a battered looking boxer, measuring 11cm. The very largest example I can find from Britain is from London, also in the British Museum, and depicts a bearded male head, possibly representing a philosopher, measuring 16.5cm. The Lincoln example can therefore be seen to be a very large example of a steelyard weight, if indeed that is the item that the mould was made from.
A key element of steelyard weights is of course the suspension loop at the top, used to hang it from the balance arm. No clear loop is visible on the Lincoln mould, but it is possible to imagine that one once existed at the very apex of the hair, but likely to have been deliberately omitted from the mould.
The identity of the female figure remains a mystery. There are no clear attributes that might identify it as a deity, though the hairstyle is carefully modelled and there are distinct robes being worn. The facial features are strong, with a prominent, bulbous nose which somewhat ruins the illusion of an elegant, classical portrait. Some possible parallels include this depiction of Aphrodite from Greece and this fragment from Surrey.
The mould therefore remains something of a mystery – an enigmatic object found in an unusual location at the base of one of the forum’s great columns. Was it the result of a local trader in the forum making use of a large steelyard weight used there, perhaps measuring industrial quantities of produce? To what use might the mould have been put? It is tantalising to think that a product of the mould might still be awaiting discovery somewhere in Lincoln.
Unnamed author. 1946. Part II The Roman Occupation. Archaeological Journal, Vol CIII