‘Astounding’ Roman Statues Found Under Medieval Church in Britain
Archaeologists digging at the site of a Norman-era church north of London received quite a surprise recently. Their ongoing excavations unearthed the well-preserved remains of three large Roman statues that must have been buried there for more than 1,000 years. The find included three detached statue heads - of a man, woman, and child - along with two intact busts (neck, shoulders, and chests) that matched the heads of the adults.
The archaeologists who made this shocking discovery were carrying out excavations below St. Mary’s Church, a 900-year-old structure located in the village of Stoke Mandeville adjacent to Aylesbury in Buckinghamshire county. They were working under the authority of the HS2 high-speed railway project, which is currently sponsoring excavations (as required by law) along the rail line route that will eventually connect London with the West Midlands.
In an HS2 press release, Dr. Rachel Wood, the lead archaeologist for HS2 contractor Fusion JV, referred to the Roman statues as “utterly astounding finds.”
Male head and torso of Roman statue discovered during a HS2 archaeological dig at the site of old St Mary’s church in Stoke Mandeville, Buckinghamshire. (HS2)
“To find one stone head or one set of shoulders would be really astonishing,” she said, “but we have two complete heads and shoulders as well as a third head as well.”
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Getting it Right the Second Time
This incredibly rare discovery has generated a lot of excitement among the HS2 archaeological team. It has also forced them to reconsider their initial interpretation of an earlier discovery at the St. Mary’s site.
Just last month, the archaeologists found the ruins of a large stone building buried directly beneath the Medieval church. The Normans had built a compacted dirt foundation on top of the rubble of that building, before beginning construction on St. Mary’s in the year 1080.
“The team working at St Mary’s discovered flint walls forming a square structure underneath the Norman levels, enclosed by a circular boundary ditch, and a small number of associated burials,” an HS2 spokesperson announced in September. “Archaeologists believe this to be an Anglo-Saxon church.”
HS2 archaeologists excavating Roman artifacts. (HS2)
“The flint foundations are about one meter wide,” the spokesperson continued, “which indicates it would have been a tall structure, although its footprint would have been small.”
The archaeologists were finishing excavations in and around the building at the time they discovered the Roman statues. Reaching the bottom layer of the hidden church site, they thought they were digging into the foundations of an old Anglo-Saxon tower. But when they saw the Roman busts, they realized the site’s history went back even further than they’d imagined.
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The statue heads and torsos were all in excellent condition. It was possible to make out precise facial details, and also to identify the types of clothing and head coverings they were wearing.
Female head of Roman statue discovered during a HS2 archaeological dig at the site of old St Mary’s church in Stoke Mandeville, Buckinghamshire. (HS2)
While the Roman statues are the most notable find at St. Mary’s, they were not the only artifacts that linked the site to Roman settlers.
The HS2 archaeologists also unearthed the remains of a hexagon-shaped Roman glass jug, which was in excellent condition and could easily be reconstructed with no missing pieces. Only one other vessel of this kind is known to exist. It is presently on display at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City. Other distinctive Roman artifacts were also found during the latest excavations, including large roof tiles, pieces of painted wall plaster, and Roman cremation urns.
Rare Roman glass jug found at the site. (HS2)
The last discovery seems especially significant, as revealed by the contents of the HS2 press release about the discoveries at the site.
“Archaeologists now believe the square building that pre-dates the Norman church is a Roman mausoleum,” the release said. “Roman materials found in the ditch around are too ornate and not enough in number to suggest the site was a domestic building.”
If the stone tower was in fact a mausoleum, or large tomb, it may have hosted the cremated remains of the three individuals (members of a wealthy and important family?) who were depicted in the statues.
A few pieces of Saxon pottery and a Saxon coin were found in the circular ditch that surrounded the large structure. But the archaeologists now believe the Saxons only occupied or modified pre-existing Roman structures, rather than building something new and original on their own.
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The Romans remained in Britain for nearly 400 years after conquering the lands in the first century AD. They would have occupied the land on which St. Mary’s Church was built sometime during that time period, when the statues and mausoleum were created.
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It is likely that the Roman statues were intentionally damaged by future occupants before being abandoned, which would explain why the heads were disconnected from the bodies.
“The disfiguration of the Roman busts, namely the removal of the head of each, is not entirely unusual as it is common for statues such as these to have been vandalized in some way before being torn down,” the HS2 press release explained. “These are early examples of how statues and historic artifacts have been discarded as society has evolved over time.”
Of course, archaeological ventures are launched primarily to search for such abandoned and forgotten objects, which can dramatically enhance our understanding of past eras.
“These extraordinary Roman statues are just some of the incredible artifacts uncovered between London and the West Midlands,” said Mike Court, the HS2, Ltd. lead archaeologist. “As HS2 builds for Britain’s future, we are uncovering and learning about the past, leaving a legacy of knowledge and discovery.”
The HS2 archaeological initiative has given archaeologists access to vast tracts of land that had been largely off-limits before. They are taking full advantage of the opportunity, learning many new and exciting facts about the United Kingdom’s complex and colorful history in the process.
Top image: Complete bust of female Roman statue discovered at the site of old St Mary’s church in Stoke Mandeville, Buckinghamshire, England. Source: HS2
By Nathan Falde