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 The Minories Eagle - Superb Find or Super Assumption?

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nordmann
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PostSubject: The Minories Eagle - Superb Find or Super Assumption?   Wed 30 Oct 2013, 09:23

The recent news of the discovery of a remarkably preserved 1st century CE Roman statue of an eagle in the Minories district just outside the old walls of Roman London has quite rightly excited archaeologists, historians and much of the general public - both for its state of preservation and indeed for its sheer exquisiteness as a piece of art in its own right. The bird, portrayed with a serpent in its beak, was found on the very last day of an archaeological dig prior to the foundations being laid for a new 16 floor hotel in the area now adjacent to the Tower of London but which, in London's early days, lay just outside the defences erected in the wake of Boudicca's bloody assault on the city.



The cited context for the find, based on other finds in the immediate vicinity, is that this area was for a short while a graveyard in the Roman tradition - just outside the walls and containing some prestigious tombs (of which the eagle was once a part), just as in Rome itself where the Appian Way enters the city. The destruction of these tombs appears to have happened quite early and the thinking is that the burgeoning population reclaimed the space and indeed the masonry for their urban building needs. In the process human remains were disinterred and scattered around the area. The eagle however appears to have been carefully buried at a depth - a factor which played a huge role in its survival over the next 1900 years.

Not having access to much of the actual data from the dig and therefore dependent on news items for information, it strikes me that there are some rather glaring inconsistencies in this assessment of the find as expressed by those interviewed - or at least some rather major assumptions that would appear to contradict previous data, if not actually common sense.

Leaving aside the assumption that the eagle was carefully buried by a respectful citizen intent on its preservation, an action that seems to fly in the face of what we are also expected to believe with respect to the desecration and destruction enacted by the same citizens on their recently dead relatives, there is the thorny question of why a Roman cemetery would be situated in the Minories at all. Between 1983 and 1990 extensive excavations were conducted in Tower Hamlets which revealed a large Roman cemetery, in use from a time commensurate with the Minories claim, and which has been presumed on the evidence to have been the primary burial grounds serving the eastern side of Roman London (a city which despite its longevity during Roman times remained pretty much within its early bounds size-wise). The Tower Hamlets site furthermore conforms quite closely to Roman habits elsewhere. Its pattern of use and re-use, its distance from the city limits, and its position on a major thoroughfare approaching the city are all hallmarks of Roman funerary traditions and practice.

The Minories however presents an enigma in that respect, at least if the current assertions are true. A prestigious site too close to the walls to be typical, desecrated despite its prestige by its users within two generations of its establishment, and nowhere near a major thoroughfare to conform to Roman practice, it appears to this uneducated observer to be rather too unique a site to ring true, especially considering how strictly observant of the applicable mores the rest of the Roman world appears to have been in these matters - and indeed Londoners themselves in Roman times with respect to the other cemeteries we know about.

Which brings us back to the eagle. It is no doubt a Roman artefact, and its state of preservation is remarkable for that. But how much of its back story - at least as presented to us in the news today - can we really depend on? Is it premature to place it on a magnificent tomb in antiquity in a burial site that frankly raises more questions than the data has even begun to answer? Or would it have been more honest of the archaeologists to simply say that they have uncovered an enigma, and one that will now probably never be solved as the sinking of the 16-storey hotel's foundations, as we speak, destroys the context forever?
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