2.3.1 Identification

There are a number of reasons why it can be difficult to give a figurine a definite identification. Usually this results from the incomplete or poor condition of a piece, particularly when it is missing body parts (especially the head and arms) or attributes. The stance can be used to help identify some figurines – for instance Hercules often has his right arm raised to hold a club (e.g. Hercules 75, 76 and 77), while Jupiter has his left raised to hold a sceptre (e.g. Jupiter 15). However, this stance is not used for every figure, and sometimes the opposite arm is raised, as on Jupiter 3 from Manchester.

The presence of an attribute, such as a club or lionskin for Hercules or caduceus for Mercury can allow identification even when the figure is not in very good condition. When the attributes are missing, the stance may not be distinctive enough to allow identification, and Mercury and Apollo in particular are two figures that can often be confused. However, in some cases the presence of the head makes identification possible. For instance, Jupiter usually has a mature, bearded face while Apollo and Mercury are youthful, clean-shaven characters. Head wings or a petasos (the winged hat worn by Mercury) will help distinguish between Mercury and Apollo when other attributes are missing. Apollo might be distinguished by longer hair that falls across his shoulders or is bound up in a roll around the back of his head. Ankle wings can be used to identify Mercury, even when the head and attributes are missing. In addition, Mercury is usually partially or fully draped, while Apollo rarely is.

Thus using a combination of factors such as age, stance, drapery, and attributes one can often identify fragmentary figurines. However, it may not be possible to make a definite identification when only a worn or corroded torso remains. In these instances the figurines have been classified as unidentified, although possible identities may be suggested on the database.

A further complication is the tendency of many antiquarian writers to publish figures as Lares, a general term that was used for a number of figurine types including Lares, Genii, priests or priestesses, and worshippers, as well as, on occasion, other deities. These early authors were also more likely to identify pieces as uncommon deities, such as Vesta, and many of these original identifications have since been revised. Thus it is usually best not to assume that such figurines identified in the 19th or early 20th centuries are correct. However, some more recent authors are perhaps too keen to attribute pieces to their own particular field of research, such as Hutchinson (1986) in her study of Bacchic objects.

The reclassification of figurines has meant that some pieces acquire multiple identities. Head 183 from Benwell is a particularly well-known example that Hutchinson (1986, 195 Me-5) published as Bacchus, on the basis of the ivy berries and leaves in the hair, and this seems the most likely identification. However, the head has also been published as Mercury (Lindgren 1980, 66, pl. 31), Victory (Petch 1928, 72-3), and Pomona (Toynbee 1964, 72 note 6). The fact that Green (1978, 46) published it twice as both Victory (no. 3) and Mercury (no. 5) indicates not only the general confusion surrounding some pieces, but also the pitfalls of relying on published sources alone to identify them. Meanwhile, it should be noted that, by giving pieces a new identification, these authors are drawing attention to the problems associated with identifying some figurines and thus hopefully make it more likely that researchers will examine pieces for themselves and not just accept published identities.

Finally, it should be noted that some figures that have been published as Romano-British figurines are actually either ancient pieces imported into Britain in the 19th or 20th centuries, modern copies or forgeries. These pieces are included in the database, but recently imported ancient figures were given an 'object period' value of 9 and modern pieces a value of 10. This includes the group from Blandford Forum, Dorset, which was published in Green (1976, 189) but is actually a collection of Egyptian and Etruscan figurines (Rigby et al. 1995, 107-10). Two figurines of Mars, said to have been found at Swell, Gloucestershire (527), and Bishop's Canning, Wiltshire (566), depict a youthful, clean-shaven Mars wearing a helmet and cuirass. These pieces are of North Italian origin and date to the 3rd or 2nd century BC, and while Robinson (2003, 35) believes that the Bishop's Canning figure is a later import, Henig (Henig and Paddock 1993, 85) suggests that this figure, like another from Mount Batten, Plymouth (Henig 1988, 70 no. 128) could indicate Iron Age contact with the Mediterranean. Other figurines of Etruscan date are all worshippers or priests: 114, 115, 116, 117, 175, 176, 471, 483, 484 and 1113 from London; 57 from Pavenham, Bedfordshire; 290 from Ruthin, Denbigh; 323 from York; 391 from Tallington, Lincolnshire; 559 from Bath; 565 from Avebury, Wilts; 578 from Wallingford, Oxfordshire; 782 possibly from Maiden Castle, Dorset; 1139 from St Albans and possibly 804 from Kettlethorpe, Lincolnshire, although no image was available for this find. One feature that universally unites these early figurines is the lack of a reliable provenance; thus while some may well have been brought to Britain in Iron Age or Roman times, it is not possible to say for certain.

Sometimes Romano-British figurines were copied and used to create modern objects, such as pipe tampers, which are tools used to pack the bowl of the pipe when adding tobacco. All of the following pipe tampers have been published as Romano-British: Apollo 22 from St Albans, Satyr or Hercules 308 from York, Jupiter or Silvanus 609 from Brampton, Norfolk, and Silvanus 664 from Maidstone, Kent. Only the example from St Albans is complete; the other pieces are all broken at the feet and the tamper is missing, which no doubt led to their initial misidentification. A complete example from Titchmarsh, Northamptonshire, of the Satyr or Hercules 308 type has been published on the PAS database (NARC-FEE361).

Figure 4

Figure 4: Mercury pipe tamper from Ipswich Museum

Another group of pipe tampers depicts Mercury in flight with the right arm raised and large wings on the petasos and ankles. Four examples are broken below the right ankle (42, 59, 229 and 364), while one (555) stands on a small pedestal. These figurines have been published in various places as Roman, but an example in Ipswich Museum (ISPMG 1914-33.39) on which the tamper is still attached to the right foot shows that they are in fact pipe tampers (Figure 4).


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