Rare Carving of Nude Horseman Found at Roman Fort May Depict Mercury or Mars

A pair of amateur archaeologists discovered the sandstone relief at Vindolanda in northern England

Carving of nude horseman
The sandstone relief is the first of its kind found at Vindolanda, a Roman fort near Hadrian's Wall. The Vindolanda Trust

Volunteers at Vindolanda, a Roman fort in northern England, have discovered a rare sandstone carving of a nude warrior and his horse.

As Tony Henderson reports for local news outlet Chronicle Live, Richie Milor and David Goldwater have participated in annual excavations at the Northumberland heritage site for the past 15 years. In May, writes Laura Geggel for Live Science, archaeologists asked the pair to exhume a paved floor in a fourth-century building at the fort. They found the engraved relief just a few inches below the topsoil.

“[W]e are just absolutely elated, very proud to be part of this discovery, it was actually very emotional,” says Milor in a statement. “Whether you find something or not we love coming to this site, playing our small part in the research that takes place, but finding this made it a very special day indeed.”

Now, experts at the Vindolanda Charitable Trust are trying to determine what the carving—the first of its kind found at the fort—represents. Per a video released by the trust, no inscriptions or identifying marks appear on the 6-inch-wide by 12-inch-long panel, so the team is drawing on the statue’s attributes to discern its meaning.

“The nakedness of the man [suggests] he is probably a god, rather than a mere cavalryman,” says Marta Alberti, one of the archaeologists overseeing excavations at Vindolanda, in the statement. “He is also carrying a spear in his left arm, a common attribute of the god of war—Mars.”

Alberti adds, “[W]hen you look at his head, the two almost circular features could be identified as wings: a common attribute of Mercury—god of travel. Horses and donkeys are also often associated with Mercury as a protector of travelers.”

The fact that Milor and Goldwater uncovered the artifact near fourth-century calvary barracks further supports the figure’s identification as Mars or Mercury. Soldiers living at the fort may have created their own depiction of the gods, or even another deity with characteristics of both, as Alberti points out in the statement.

Though this stone relief is unique among the artifacts discovered at Vindolanda, nudity is a common motif in the Greek carvings that inspired Roman artisans. As historian Jeffrey M. Hurwit wrote for the American Journal of Archaeology in 2007, “nudity characterizes figures who otherwise embody more-than-mortal size, might, and blessed [excellence].”

Speaking with Live Science’s Corey Binns in 2007, Hurwit said that warriors and heroes were “often, but not always,” depicted nude as a testament to their physical prowess. Conversely, classical portrayals of defeated or dying men sometimes used nudity to underscore their subjects’ weakness.

The enigmatic horseman statue is one of numerous notable archaeological discoveries made at Vindolanda. The encampment is located about one mile south of Hadrian’s Wall—a 73-mile rock partition erected around 122 A.D. to mark the edge of Roman Britain and defend imperial territory against skirmishes from the unconquered tribes of Scotland—but it actually predates the famed fortification.

As Mike Ibeji wrote for BBC History in 2012, the Roman Empire established the fortress as a permanent outpost in the late 80s A.D. It was a critical stronghold during the construction of Hadrian’s Wall, keeping authorities stocked with supplies and workers.

According to ARTnews’ Jesse Holth, ancient Romans intermittently occupied the fort through 370 A.D., when soldiers left the military outpost as part of Rome’s withdrawal from Britain. The site is known for its wooden tablets, several of which contain notes penned by Romans who lived at the fort. Researchers have also discovered sandals, combs, textiles, swords, arrowheads, ceramics, bronze statues, a leather mouse and boxing gloves.

The newly revealed relief, for its part, “may represent something we have not only never seen before but something we may never see again,” says Alberti in the statement.

The carving will be exhibited at the Vindolanda Museum through September 24.