Archaeologists Unearth ‘Incredibly Rare’ Roman-Era Clay Figurine of the God Mercury

The excavations led to the discovery of a previously unknown ancient Roman settlement in England

Clay head of Mercury
The clay head of the Roman god Mercury is roughly two inches long. National Trust Images / James Dobson

The head of a clay figurine depicting the Roman god Mercury has been uncovered in Kent, England. Archaeologists say the 2,000-year-old statue’s body was nowhere to be found.

“To come across a head of a figurine of Mercury, in pipeclay, is incredibly rare,” says Nathalie Cohen, an archaeologist with the conservation charity the National Trust, in a statement. “Just five centimeters [roughly two inches] tall, the head is clearly visible as Mercury, with his winged headdress.”

Mercury is the Roman god of finance, travel, trickery and commerce. (His Greek counterpart is Hermes, known as the messenger of the gods.)

Researchers found the artifact at Smallhythe Place, an archaeological site near the River Rother that was home to an important English Royal shipbuilding center during the Middle Ages. The new research suggests that it was also the site of a Roman settlement between the first and third centuries. While it was only “a smallish settlement by a port,” the area would have been “vital in the logistics chain for exporting timber and iron out of [southeast England] and importing materials from the continent,” Cohen tells the Guardian’s Esther Addley.

In addition to the small figurine, Cohen says that her team found “tiles stamped with the mark of the Roman fleet (the Classis Britannica), ceramics including an intact pot and evidence for buildings, boundary features and pits—which provide tantalizing clues to the nature of this riverside community.”

From this trove of artifacts, the Mercury figurine is particularly unusual. Typically, when the Romans crafted small statues depicting deities, they used metal, but the newly discovered statue is made from pipeclay—the same kind of white clay later used to mold tobacco pipes, reports Live Science’s Laura Geggel. The material was primarily produced in ancient Gaul, and less than ten pipeclay Roman figurines have been discovered in Roman Britain.

1st century Roman pot during reconstruction, credit National Trust-Sam Milling
Experts piece together a Roman pot from the first century found in Kent, England. National Trust / Sam Milling

The fact that this statue depicts a male god is also unusual, as most of the others are of female deities like Venus, the goddess of love.

The small statue also exemplifies the central role of religion in ancient Roman life.

“Pipeclay figurines were mainly used by civilians for private religious practice in domestic shrines and occasionally in temples and the graves of often sick children,” says Matthew Fittock, an expert on ceramic figurines in Roman Britain, in the statement.

The researchers think that the complete statue once depicted the god in a standing position, either draped in a short cloak or nude and holding a staff known as a caduceus with two snakes spiraling around it.

They can’t know for sure why the statue was broken, though they say it may not have been shattered by mistake.

“Rather than pieces being discarded because they were broken, there is evidence to suggest that deliberately breaking some figurine heads was an important ritual practice, whereas whole figurines are usually found in graves,” adds Fittock.

The head of Mercury, along with other newly discovered artifacts, is scheduled to go on display at Smallhythe Place on February 28.

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