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Selection of items from the Yorkshire Museum Collection including the mysterious Roman object.

Mysterious Roman Object Identified After 150 Years is One of Only 23 in the World

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There are many curious and mysterious objects that have been unearthed by archaeologists down the years. Many of them have baffled experts for a long time. One of these enigmatic objects was a small flat and gold plate that was unearthed in a Roman-era grave in the nineteenth century. It remained a mystery for some 150 years but today experts believe that they have finally solved the enigma of this rare object.

The Mysterious Object

In 1872 during an archaeological dig in the city of York in England, a skeleton of a woman, probably in her twenties was found. A golden object that is about three inches long and made out of beaten gold was discovered with the skeleton.  A  coin was found with the woman, and according to BT News it ‘had the face of Septimius Severus on one side and Fortuna, the goddess of luck on the other’. The portrait of the Emperor Septimius Severus probably means that the coin was forged about 200 AD but the burial may be even older.

The unidentified object has been found by the team of experts to be a Roman mouth plaque. Image: YORYM : H326.1/©York Museums Trust ( Yorkshire Museum )

The Golden Plaque

The flat and gold object was deposited in the Yorkshire Museum and its nature and use remained a mystery. A team of experts from the museum began collaborating with specialists from around the world to solve the mystery. After much study and comparisons with other Roman finds , the experts believe that they now know the nature of the flat, square golden artifact. It was a golden mouth plaque, that is approximately 1800 years old.  According to the Daily Mail , ‘Mouth plaques were small plates of gold or other metal that the Romans buried with their dead’.

Extremely Rare Artifact

The experts’ confirmation that the item was a mouth plaque is very important. It is believed to be the first time that this type of artifact has been unearthed in Britain and there are only around two dozen similar items in the world. However, while the identity of the object has been established, questions still surround it. It is believed that the plaque was placed over the mouth of the deceased, who was typically a member of the elite. However, the reason for this practice continues to perplex the experts.

Theories on the Golden Plaque

There have been several theories put forward for the placing of plaques on the mouth of the deceased. Some have claimed that they were magical amulets that protected the dead in the afterlife. Another theory is that they may have been an attempt to silence the dead and to ensure that they did not haunt the living.  It seems likely that the plaques were used in the funerary practices of at least some of the Roman elite.

For comparison, this Late Roman burial from Boscombe Down, Wiltshire. The small drinking vessel placed in the grave had probably contained wine for the journey to the Underworld. The York burial was found only with the gold mouth plaque and a fake silver coin. (Image: Wessex Archaeology CC BY NC-SA 2.0)

For comparison, this Late Roman burial from Boscombe Down, Wiltshire. The small drinking vessel placed in the grave had probably contained wine for the journey to the Underworld. The York burial was found only with the gold mouth plaque and a fake silver coin. (Image: Wessex Archaeology CC BY NC-SA 2.0)

The majority of the mouth plaques have been found in graves in the former eastern Provinces of Rome, including Syria and the Crimea.  This has prompted some to speculate that the dead woman in the grave came from the east. After her death she was buried according to eastern customs. This would according to Adam Parker of the Yorkshire Museum, “show a level of mobility of this unusual practice from one end of the empire to the other,” reports the Irish News.

The Significance of the Golden Mouth Plaque

The Yorkshire Museum is planning to conduct more research, including DNA testing, on the skeleton. It is hoped that isotope analysis can help to identify where the woman came from. This can help us to understand if she originated in the eastern provinces, which can help ‘to shed more light on the mouth plaque itself’ according to the Shropshire Star , because it could demonstrate that the placing of the plaque on the mouth of the deceased was an Eastern Roman funerary practice.

The identification of the small gold object is important as it can help us to understand the funerary customs and beliefs of the Romans . The mouth plaque can also help us to understand how beliefs and customs were diffused throughout the Empire and demonstrate the multicultural nature of the Roman provinces and how connected they have become by the third century AD.

Top image: Selection of items from the Yorkshire Museum Collection including the mysterious Roman object.       Source: Courtesy of York Museums Trust / CC BY SA 4.0

By Ed Whelan

Comments

As a child, I was always under the impression that this was a Christian burial, going by the lettered strip that is shown at the bottom of the photograph. From memory this reads "Ave Sorore Vivas In Deo."
I may of course have misremembered, and the strip I recall belongs to another burial dug up during the construction of the current station.

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