3.34 Human figurines

As well as the figurines depicting deities, there are those that show a variety of human characters, and they are listed in Table 4. Most common among these are priests or worshippers (e.g. 299). This category is rather difficult to define as many of the figures share characteristics with deities, such as their stance or the presence of a patera or similar object. The female figures wear a long gown and may be draped in a mantle, often with the head covered, while the males usually wear a toga. They stand with their arms outstretched in a gesture of supplication, often holding an object such as a patera or incense box in one or both hands. If the hand is empty it is usually open.

Table 4: Types of human figurines
Type Number
Actor 2
African 4
Athlete 1
Barbarian 2
Bound captive 11
Emperor 2
Feline attacking man 1
Gladiator 2
Huntsman 1
Man and plough team 1
Priest/priestess 12
Scholar 1
Sexual scene 1
Two joined figures 1

The problem of identification is exemplified by Figurine 559 from Bath which shows a standing male, wearing a toga across the left shoulder. Both of his hands are missing so it is not known what attributes he may have held in them. He is also wearing a laurel wreath. Green (1976, 187 no. 17) describes the figure as having a radiate head and suggests an identification of Dolichenus. The laurel wreath might suggest Apollo, and a very similar figure from Ulrichsberg, Austria, has been identified as such (Fleischer 1967, 48-9 no. 36). However, another similar unprovenanced figure from Gaul is described as a worshipper (Esperandieu and Rolland 1959, 44-5 no. 67). The uncertainty regarding his identification means that here the figure is recorded as human, possibly a worshipper or Apollo.

A particularly interesting example comes from St Mary's Hospital, Colchester (1042). This shows a priestess with her head covered and her right arm raised to hold an object, now missing. In her left hand she holds a rounded object. Crummy (2006, 61) has suggested that, given the association of the temple at this site to Mercury, the missing object from her right hand could be a caduceus while in her left she holds a purse and that the figure could be a priestess of the goddess Rosmerta, a Celtic goddess who is associated with Mercury. However, Black (2008, 10) suggests that this is a priestess of the goddess Nantosuelta who is shown holding a long pole or sceptre and that in her left hand she holds a pot which is associated with her consort Sucellus.

Many of the human figures depict subjects that were popular in the Roman world. From London there is a small group depicting gladiators (170 and 171) and barbarians (172 and 173). Two actors wearing masks come from Colchester (177) and Willerby, E. Yorkshire (769). African males are shown in a variety of poses, and while most often naked (837, 838 and 886), one example shows a youth dressed in a tunic (1144). A naked youth from London (4) has been given a number of identifications, including Narcissus and a priest (Green 1976, 222 no. 18), but is currently most often considered to be an athlete (Pitts 1979, 82 no. 149; Toynbee 1964, 118). An almost identical figure comes from Berzovia, Romania (Marinescu 1995, fig. 1b). There is also Scholar 212 from Vindolanda, Northumberland.

A most unusual piece is the Man and plough team 270 from Piercebridge. Although at 71mm long the figurine is very small, it is well modelled and highly detailed. The identity of the man is unknown, but he wears a tunic and a hooded cape. The cape is probably a birrus britannicus, an article which is one of only two items (the other being the tapetia, a woollen rug) mentioned as exports from Britain in the Edict of Diocletian (Wild 2002, 1). The birrus was worn in many places around the Empire by the late 3rd century (Wild 1963, 195), but the popularity of the cape in this region may indicate that the figure was made in Britain or Gaul. Unusually, the plough team is composed of a bull and a cow, a combination that was used by Romulus to mark the bounds of the city during the foundation of Rome in a ceremony which was then maintained each year as a symbol of fertility and strength for the city (Rykwert 1976, 29 and 132). Thus this figure marks an important symbol in Roman life, although only one other figurine of this type, from Arezzo, is known to the author (Rykwert 1976, fig. 108).

Another well-known figure from Silchester, commonly called the flute girl, stands holding an instrument with both hands across her chest (178). She is dressed in a long gown with a roll around the neck and wears a stephane on her head. The figure is rather top-heavy, with broad shoulders that taper to a narrow waist and very small feet. The hands are also overly large. Henig (1995b, 95) suggests that this could be a depiction of the Muse Euterpe.


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