5. Chronology

The dating of figurines is a particularly difficult theme to address. As already mentioned above, few figurines come from known, dated contexts, and even then many of the contexts are residual or from late in the site use. In fact, only 76 out of the 1000 figurines considered here come from dated contexts. One must also take into account that, as religious or possibly heirloom items, figurines are likely to have been in use for many years, and it has been suggested that the wear found on some pieces results from the repeated handling of the figurines (e.g. Henig 1996a, 131). The problem of dating is not unique to Britain but is also common on the Continent, where a number of authors (e.g. Braemar 1995, 242; Zadoks Josephus-Jitta 1984) have pointed out that contexts can provide a date for the last use of the object, but not when it was made, and that many published catalogues do not include dates for the majority of the pieces owing to a lack of dating evidence (Galestin 1995, 253).

Figurines have been found on three pre-conquest sites in Britain. Boar 262 is from Gaer-fawr hillfort but has no context details. Boar 346 was recovered from Mound XIII at Meare Lake Village, a site which dates to the last three centuries BC (Gray and Bulleid 1953). Cupid 68, Boar 98 and Base 1151 were excavated from the grave at Lexden tumulus which has been dated to c. 15-10 BC (Foster 1986). While the boar was really the only figurine type found in the British Iron Age, many of the Iron Age examples are somewhat stylised in their depiction and the Lexden example stands out as being very naturalistic. In combination with the Cupid figurine this group, in the burial of a high-status native male, indicates their importance as objects imported into Britain from elsewhere in the Roman Empire at the end of the 1st century BC.

The wider introduction of metal figurines into Britain by the Romans means that early contexts are more likely to contain figurines that were produced closer to the date of deposition. Fourteen figurines have been found in 1st-century contexts, the details of which are listed in Table 12. As might be expected, many of these contexts are associated with the early military occupation of Britain. Other finds come from contexts of 2nd to 5th century date, but one then has to start considering how the date of the find relates to the context date, and it is likely that many figurines in 4th-century contexts are actually earlier in date. In a few cases a figurine might closely match another from a dated context. Thus the three Dioscuri from Colchester (150), Wroxeter (408), and Canterbury (641) might all be given an early date, although only the example from Wroxeter comes from a 1st-century context.

Table 12: Figurines from dated contexts
No. Figurine Site type Site Context Date
302 Three-horned bull Civitas capital Jewry Wall, Leicester Layer in building C1
408 Dioscurus Military Wroxeter Demolition layer Late C1
695 Victory TownSt Martin Orgar Churchyard, London Rubbish deposit C1?
743 Dolphin VillaFishbourne Occupation layer C1
771 Victory MilitaryHolloway Street, Exeter Cremation c. AD 64+
772 Panther Military Holloway Street, Exeter Possible cremation c. AD 75-80
773 Mouse Military Mermaid Yard, Exeter Ditch c. AD 75-80
812 Drapery Town Borough High Street, Southwark Layer C1?
816 Hercules Town Swan Street, Southwark Ditch C1
858 Boar Military Metchley, Birmingham Layer in fort Mid C1
877 Mars Military Usk Pit Pre-Flavian
1001 Base Military Culver Street, Colchester Destruction layer in barrack block Mid C1
1008 Bird Civitas capital Folly Lane, St Albans Post pit Mid C1
1038 Caduceus Colonia St Mary's Hospital, Colchester Pit at temple Pre-Boudiccan
133 Venus Town Branch Road, St Albans Bath house Antonine
386 Cockerel Civitas capital Orchard Street, Chelmsford Courtyard layer of mansio c. AD 150
428 Eagle Town St Albans Cellar, Insula XIV c. AD 150-60
463 Hand Religious Springhead Layer at temple site Mid C2
686 Venus Civitas capital Wroxeter Layer in portico of macellum site C2
717 Ram Military Legionary Museum Site, Caerleon Gully in building Late C1- mid C2
793 Horse Villa Frocester Court, Frocester Layer Late C1- early C2
815 Dog Rural Brockley Hill, Greater London Pit C1-2
868 Helmet crest Military Dwr-y-Felin School, Neath Layer in fort C2?
873 Mouse Military Dock Street, Loughor Demolition debris in building Early C2
1007 Male deity Small town Castlefield, Greater Manchester Hearth in enclosure Late C2
1011 Hand holding grapes Villa Gorhambury, St Albans Gravel layer C2
1032 Cockerel Colonia Lion Walk, Colchester Make-up layer C2
1040 Caduceus Colonia St Mary's Hospital, Colchester Demolition layer C1-2
1108 Horse Military Alchester Pit C2
1036 Snake Colonia Balkerne Lane, Colchester Pit Mid C2+
370 Bacchus Villa Quarry House, Frindsbury Pit C3
436 Cockerel Civitas capital St Albans Make-up layer AD 270-80
457 Arm Civitas capital St Albans Cellar wall packing AD 270-80
458 Leg Civitas capital St Albans Cellar wall packing AD 270-80
745 Foot Military Warehouse south site, Dover Layer in fort Late C2- early C3
832 Priestess Military Vindolanda, Chesterholm Layer below floor in fort c. AD 208-13
1000 Lion Colonia Culver Street, Colchester Dump levels C2-3
1015 Mercury Military Ribchester Quarry layer C3
1034 Dog Colonia Balkerne Lane, Colchester Topsoil c. AD 250-300
1179 Head Small town Isca Grange, Caerleon Pit in vicus Late C3+
1186 Lar Rural Manor Farm, Castle Cary Limekiln Early C3
5 Mother goddess Religious Henley Wood temple, Yatton Metalling layer C4
8 Leg Small town Thornborough Farm, Catterick Levelling Late C3-early C4
132 Venus Civitas capital St Albans Timber-lined pit in cellar C4
167 Three-horned bull Religious Maiden Castle Veranda of temple C4
245 Genius Military Caerleon Layer in barracks AD 317+
269 Lar Military Papcastle Foundation trench for barracks C4
335 Venus Rural Bokerley Dyke Layer C4
462 Arm Religious Springhead Ditch C3-4
529 Bound captive Villa Frocester Court, Frocester Ditch C4
533 Horse and rider Small town Cave's Inn Well C4
642 Minerva Civitas capital Greyhound Yard, Dorchester Layer in courtyard Late C4
698 Mercury Religious West Hill, Uley Layer in annexe, temple structure II Late C4
703 Cockerel Religious West Hill, Uley Pit F19 in temple structure II Late C4
704 Goat Religious West Hill, Uley Layer in temple, Structure II Mid-late C4
705 Wing Religious West Hill, Uley Pit F19 in temple structure II Late C4
706 Caduceus Religious West Hill, Uley Demolition layer in temple structure IX Mid C4
707 Caduceus Religious West Hill, Uley Demolition layer in temple structure I Late C4
711 Leg Religious West Hill, Uley Pit in temple, Structure 2 Late C4
750 Goat Small town Mill Street, Caerleon Destruction deposit in vicus building 21+22 Early C4
751 Cupid Small town Mill Street, Caerleon Destruction deposit in vicus building 3 Early C4
753 Senuna Minerva Rural Ashwell Hoard C3-4
762 Bacchus Rural Hill Farm, Gestingthorpe Gully in Building 1 C3-4
781 Horse and rider Small town Sandpit Road, Braintree Pit Mid C3-4
807 Arm Rural Ashwell Hoard C3-4
808 Arm Rural Ashwell Hoard C3-4
813 Cockerel London Guy's Hospital, Southwark Dump layer C4
833 Mercury Military Vindolanda, Chesterholm Layer below cobbling c. AD 370+
1103 Sphinx Large town Lloyds Register, Fenchurch Street, London Rubbish layer C3-4
670 Cockerel Rural Aston, Hertfordshire Ditch Late C4-early C5
699 Mercury Religious West Hill, Uley Layer in temple, Structure II Early C5
700 Mercury Religious West Hill, Uley Layer in bank structure XIX C5
702 Caduceus Religious West Hill, Uley Demolition layer in temple cella Early C5
708 Caduceus Religious West Hill, Uley Bank structure X C5
709 Caduceus Religious West Hill, Uley Bank structure XIX C5
710 Caduceus Religious West Hill, Uley Temple building XV C5

One change that occurs in the mid 3rd or 4th century is that groups of figurines associated with religious sites start to appear, such as the material from West Hill, Uley and Ashwell. The temples at Brigstock, Lamyatt Beacon and Lydney are of a similar date and so the finds from these sites, even if lacking context data, should be included in this group. The lack of contextual data means that the majority of finds rely on comparison with other figurines and stylistic dating. The dating of figurines in this manner is extremely difficult, and its merits have been much debated (e.g. Braemar 1995; Galestin 1995; Zadoks-Josephus Jitta 1984). Some figurines were based on earlier models, such as the long thin Hercules with his raised club which was originally an Etruscan type, but was definitely produced in the Roman period (Boucher 1976, 27). However, as Pitts (1979, 28) points out, the simplicity of figures such as these means that they may bear a resemblance to earlier, equally simple Etruscan figures. The Aust figurines (512 and 1170) are thought to be of Iron Age date, but their lack of context means that their attribution has been based on style and their origin is much debated (Cunliffe 2010, 472; Henig 1996a, 131; Stead 1984, 60). Thus careful consideration has to be used when looking for types on which figurines might be based.

The details of style, and stylistic dating, cannot be considered in detail here, but a few general points regarding style and context can be made. It is the case that many of the highly classical figurines imported from the Continent are given early dates, but among the figurines of provincial style there is little evidence that the quality of the figurines worsens over time. Figurines of Classical 3 and Stylised 1 quality are the most common types in all contexts dating to the 1st to 4th centuries. Fourth-century contexts have the widest range, including highly classical and naïve figurines. This is most likely the result of the presence of many figurines in destruction deposits.


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