Archaeologists in London were in the final hours of an excavation last week when they uncovered a 1,900-year-old sculpture of a Roman eagle considered to be one of the best pieces of Romano-British art ever found.
The statue of an eagle swallowing a snake was found in perfect condition by Museum of London Archaeology staff. Judging from its limestone, it is believed to have been made in the Cotswolds, in southwestern England, in the late 1st or early 2nd century A.D., Bloomberg reports.
"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.,” Martin Henig, an internationally renowned expert on Roman art, told The Guardian.
The nearly 10-foot sculpture will be on display for six months at the Museum of London Archaeology. It was discovered in a ditch on the edges of a Roman cemetery.
“It was a Friday afternoon, when we were just finishing up,” museum Project Officer Simon Davis said. “We do commonly find pieces of stone in the ground -- archaeological masonry and different pieces of stonework -- which we always check to see if we need to record, keep or discard them.”
But this piece was different.
“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. They realized that it was an eagle.”
The statue is believed to have been placed by a mausoleum that changed ownership over the years. Eventually, archaeologists believe, it was buried rather than destroyed out of superstition that the statue had religious meaning. The eagle is a Roman symbol that represents god, and the serpent stands for evil, said Michael Marshall, finds specialist at the Museum of London Archeology.
While archaeologists uncovered a similar statue at a Roman villa site in Somerset, England, in the 1920s, the bird had lost its head, wings and feet.
“There are other pieces of comparable quality, but nothing really above it that was made in this country,” Marshall added.