LONDON — Archeologists digging around the site of a future hotel complex in the City of London have made a rare discovery: a Roman statue of an eagle swallowing a snake.
In perfect condition, the bust-sized funerary sculpture was found last month by Museum of London archeologists on the final day of excavations before the site could be built on. The limestone eagle is believed to have been made in the Cotswolds, England, in the late 1st or early 2nd century A.D.
“This really sits among the finest pieces of Romano-British sculpture,” said Michael Marshall, finds specialist at the Museum of London Archeology, as he presented the 1,900-year-old bird to reporters inside a cavernous storeroom.
“There are other pieces of comparable quality, but nothing really above it that was made in this country,” he said.
MOLA Project Officer Simon Davis, who oversaw the dig, said the eagle was discovered 3 meters (9.8 feet) below ground level in Aldgate, on the edges of a Roman cemetery, by two archeologists who were excavating the site of a known ditch.
“It was a Friday afternoon, when we were just finishing up,” said Davis. “We do commonly find pieces of stone in the ground — archeological masonry and different pieces of stonework — which we always check to see if we need to record, keep or discard them.
“When this piece of stone was found originally, the guys set about cleaning it to assess its importance,” he said. “When they started to uncover the feathers and the shoulders of the animal itself, they thought at the time: maybe it’s an angel, maybe it’s a cherub.
“As they cleaned further and further, they found the neck, the feathers and the beak,” said Davis. “They realized that it was an eagle.”
Marshall said the sculpture was probably commissioned by a rich individual who could afford to have it made in a different part of England. The eagle, a typical Roman symbol, represents good while the serpent epitomizes evil, he said.
The eagle is currently owned by Scottish Widows Investment Partnership Property Trust and its development partners Endurance Land.
Once an archeological treasure is found, it is placed in the care of MOLA, which analyzes and conserves it and publishes a report on the discovery. In most cases, the landlord then donates the object to a museum or archive, which in London is usually the Museum of London.
The eagle is considered priceless, according to MOLA.
Earlier this year, separate digs on the site of Bloomberg LP’s future London headquarters revealed Roman building remains and some 10,000 well-preserved objects that led the site to be dubbed the “Pompeii of the north.”
Museum of London archeologists discovered good-luck charms, coins, drains and even leather shoes dating from the mid-40’s A.D., when the Romans founded London, to A.D. 410. The objects were in good condition because a now-lost river, the Walbrook, kept the ground wet and prevented their decay.
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The eagle is on display for six months at the Museum of London: www.museumoflondon.org.uk.