Tiny statue uncovered by archaeologists reveals 1st century hair style

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The tiny 1st century figure of a Celtic deity found by National Trust archaeologists shows remarkable detail, including a moustache and details of its hair style. Source: National Trust

A hair style which may have been popular in East Anglia during the 1st century AD has been revealed following the cleaning of a tiny 5cm-high figure of a deity, found by National Trust archaeologists.

The figure was one of the most striking finds of an excavation at Wimpole in Cambridgeshire and is a copper alloy human figurine made in the 1st century AD which seems to represent an unknown Celtic deity. Prior to cleaning and research, it was suggested that it represented ‘Cernunnos’, the god of fertility. 

The archaeologists were surprised by the detail which has survived on the figure after so long beneath the ground. A tiny moustache is now clearly visible and the figure’s hair, which may represent 1st century trends or how the deity was normally shown, can be seen to be neatly shaped at the front and long but tidy at the back.

National Trust archaeologists and colleagues from Oxford Archaeology East investigated part of the ancient landscape of the National Trust’s Wimpole Estate as part of the new visitor welcome and car park project in 2018 and revealed a late Iron Age to early Roman rural settlement. Further analyses of the artefacts found have led to some new discoveries.

Shannon Hogan, National Trust Archaeologist for the East of England, said: “This figure is an exceptional find and thanks to careful conservation and cleaning, we can now see some remarkable detail. His hairstyle and moustache are clear, which might be indicative of current trends or perhaps ‘typical’ for depictions of this particular deity.

“The artefact dates to the 1st century AD, and whilst possibly of Roman manufacture, exhibits very Celtic traits such as his oval eyes. The torc it is holding – an open-ended metal neck ring – is still clear and a small recess at the centre is suggestive of a decorative inlay, now lost.

“We have extremely limited knowledge of what ordinary people of England at that time looked like, so this beautifully detailed figure might just be giving us a tantalising glimpse into their appearance, or how they imagined their gods.”

The figure probably originally served as the handle of a spatula. It may have been lost or deposited at Wimpole by inhabitants of early Roman Britain at the end of the Iron Age. It is a reminder of the ways in which the Celtic religion shared features with the Roman religion during the Roman occupation of Britain from AD43 to 410, when both had multiple deities responsible for different aspects of daily life. 

Chris Thatcher from Oxford Archaeology East added: “Finds such as this give a rare and fascinating insight into aesthetics and symbolism in the latest Iron Age. The extent to which his hairstyle is typical of contemporary styles will never be known for certain. However, we think the combination of him holding a torc – associated with status – and forming the handle of a spatula – either used to mix medicines, or wax for writing tablets – speak of influence and power. The fact that he was found on a site with so much other evidence for it being a local hub is wonderful and appropriate.”

The excavation team at Wimpole found a site that surpassed their expectations.  The remains represented numerous phases of changing land use over a few hundred years from livestock management to large ditched enclosures that become a focus of deposition and finally, later Roman settlement reorganisation centred around arable production.

The settlement is believed to have been at the centre of a strong trading network, with imported pottery as well as around 300 metal objects uncovered during the dig. They included coins, cosmetic implements, horse harness fittings, Roman military uniform fittings, a spearhead, an axe head, key handles, brooches, as well as scrap lead and a number of iron nails. 

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