A SUPERB Roman eagle sculpture in near pristine condition, serpent prey still wriggling in its beak, has been found by archaeologists in London.
A symbol of immortality and power, it was carefully preserved when the aristocratic tomb it decorated was smashed up more than 1,800 years ago – and is regarded as one of the best pieces of Romano-British art ever found.
The preservation is so startling that the archaeologists who found it a few weeks ago at the bottom of a ditch were worried in case they had unearthed a Victorian garden ornament.
Excitement spread as it became clear from the context that it really was Roman – but carved in Britain, from Cotswold limestone.
Archaeologists are itching to research it further.
But first after a quick clean – and a frame to support the only damage, a broken wing – it has been put on display , just 30 days from ditch to gallery.
Martin Henig, an internationally renowned expert on Roman art, said: "The sculpture is of exceptional quality, the finest sculpture by a Romano-British artist ever found in London, and amongst the very best statues surviving from Roman Britain. Its condition is extraordinary, as crisp as on the day it was carved. All it has lost is the surface paint, probably washed away when it was deposited in a ditch."
The London eagle was carved in the first 1st Century AD, at a time when the Roman city was exploding in population and wealth. It is believed to have stood on an imposing mausoleum, on the roadside edge of the eastern cemetery just outside the city walls. The road was once lined with the monuments of the wealthiest citizens, like the Via Appia outside Rome.
Possibly only a few decades later, many of the monuments were demolished – probably as ownership of the plots changed and new ones were built. There is even evidence suggesting that some of the old bones were left scattered in the open air.
Most of the stone was reused as hardcore or building stone, but the eagle was carefully laid into a ditch, probably just beside its former perch. Michael Marshall, finds expert at Museum of London Archaeology, believes that a superstitious awe probably protected such a powerful religious symbol, even when the tomb of its original owner became builders' rubble.