1.1 Publications

Metal figurines may not be common in Roman Britain, but they are certainly not rare; however, like so many categories of finds they are poorly served by publication. A small group of monographs was produced in the late 1970s and early 1980s, each with a particular focus: two volumes by Green covered the religious objects from civilian (1976) and military (1978) sites; one by Foster (1977) studied boar figurines of Iron Age, Roman and Saxon date; Pitts (1979) focused on the figurines from the regions of the Catuvellauni and Trinovantes; Lindgren (1980) took an art historical approach to the study of figural art; and finally Hutchinson studied representations of the god Bacchus (1986).

In addition, many figurines have been published in museum catalogues. Major collections are held in London at the British Museum and Museum of London, but even these pieces are not well published. While some of the most famous figurines such as the group from the River Thames (4, 9, 10, 11, and 12), Harpocrates 147 and Archer 169 are well known and referenced in innumerable publications, the museum publications leave much to be desired. Their catalogues (e.g. British Museum 1922 and 1964; Wheeler 1930) provide only the most basic information such as material, dimensions, provenance and possibly a photograph. A catalogue by Walters (1899) highlights another problem with older museum collections in that almost all of his figured pieces are not actually from Britain at all. Many were imported and donated to the British Museum as bequests from a number of individual benefactors in the 18th century, and these pieces formed the founding collections (Walters 1899, xiii). Only Toynbee (1962) fully discusses objects from Britain in her catalogue from the exhibition of Art in Roman Britain held at Goldsmith's Hall in 1961.

Figure 1  Figure 2

Figure 1: (a) Worshipper 559, (b) Mother Goddess 560, (c) Priestess 601 (illustrations from Scarth 1864, pl. XXXV)
Figure 2: (a) Goat 237 and (b) steelyard weight in the shape of a dog's head, both from the Thames in London (illustrations from Smith 1859; photographs © Trustees of the British Museum)

Three other major sources of information on figurines in Roman Britain are the Victoria County Histories (VCH), general volumes on religion or art, and short reports on individual pieces or assemblages from a site or museum. The VCH volumes are a particularly good source for antiquarian finds. While they generally only contain an identification, a rough provenance and perhaps an illustration, they do often provide references to earlier publications. Obviously, in the days before photography, images were provided by illustration. However, in many 19th-century illustrations the figurines were subject to a certain amount of interpretation (e.g. Allen 1839; Buckman and Newmarch 1850; Scarth 1864) which may include representing the figurine as an idealised human figure, adding more detail to the body and clothing, or giving it more personality in terms of facial expression. Three examples from Bath, Somerset, are all more lifelike in their illustrations, and the face of Mother Goddess 560 in particular is transformed from a crude, rather pop-eyed visage into that of an attractive young woman (Figure 1). It can be particularly obvious when applied to animals such as Goat 237 and a dog (British Museum Accession Number 1856, 0701.27) from the Thames in London, in which the stance and facial expressions are transformed in the illustration to create a much livelier piece (Figure 2). In particular the damage to the face of the dog is not shown on the illustration. It is quite common for illustrations from the 19th century to present an idealised image which may not show damage or adds missing features such as limbs or attributes. Sometimes damage or corrosion is sustained by a piece as a result of handling or natural decay, but in the case of the Thames dog the damage does not look recent. Of course this has implications for the identification of pieces not seen at first-hand since it is also not uncommon for antiquarian figures to be wrongly identified in the first instance. Thus the interpretation of stance, features, or attributes in an illustration can affect the ability to identify a figure correctly.


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