Marvellous Miniatures at the Archive: Top 3 Tiny Roman Objects

By glynn davis on 24 Sep 2014

Roman miniature tear catcher

The Museum’s Archaeological Archive houses a vast collection of objects with sometimes intricate meanings and nearly always a hidden story. In our continuing effort to open-up and throw light on our stored collections this new series of monthly blogs will present an alternative ‘top list’ of London’s archaeological objects. Last month some of our unusual ecofacts made the line-up. This month were focusing on the superstitious Romans and some of their more unusual miniatures…

Probably one of my favourite objects (if we’re allowed favourites) is this tiny glass ‘jar’ that has appeared on our blog pages before as part of our pop-up archaeology project in the Borough of Bromley. What is remarkable about this tiny glass object (above) is that it is still intact and wasn’t destroyed by a troweling archaeologist when it was excavated almost 50 years ago! This tiny two-handed jar was discovered with skeletal remains excavated from a rectangular tomb on the Roman villa site at Keston, Southeast London.

Deposited in the base of a cut for presumably a small coffin, this object may have been originally placed with the burial of a child. The vessel is highly usual and it has been suggested that this miniaturised object may have functioned as a lacrimosa or ‘tear catcher’, used to catch the tears of a mourner before being placed in the burial of the deceased. If we do interpret it as such then it has to be one of the most emotionally charged objects we have in our collection at the Archive.

Miniature Roman axe

Increasing slightly in size from 18mm to 30mm our next top object has also featured on our blog pages, but a little more recently, in one of our object competitions (sadly it didn’t win but I think it deserves a bit more attention). Miniature axes such as this are not uncommon finds across the Western Roman Empire (with a handful known from London) and are normally deemed ‘votive’ although this would all depend upon their archaeological context. Excavated at Lefevre road over 40 years ago, our axe may have been associated with the cemetery discovered there but the records are unclear. What the purpose of an axe in minute form meant is an ongoing debate but it could well have functioned as a symbol of authority or maybe even alluded to the more ancient Celtic beliefs around sacrifice.

Miniature Roman sandal with swastika

The last and largest of our top three objects is a leather sandal with some rather unusual decoration. In the centre of the sole a swastika has been cut as well as two crosses on the heel and on the toe loop fastener. Originally the swastika was a symbol of good fortune and appearing on this miniaturised shoe it has been, once again, interpreted as a votive object. Our shoe, however, was uncovered over thirty years ago in the fill of the late Roman waterfront (which also led to its perfect perseveration). Usually quay revetments are backfilled with the city’s rubbish, so our shoe was perhaps discarded without ritual intent.

Looking closer at the leather we can see marks around the heel where the strap would have been stitched in, suggesting this was a functioning object. Other miniature versions of this sandal type have been found in London so there is no reason to presume that our shoe wasn’t worn by a tiny Roman tot. The cross and swastika on the sole perhaps make more sense then, when considering the vulnerability of young children in the ancient world and perhaps the need of parents to dissuade the evil eye.

Next month, with Sherlock fever mounting at the museum, we’ll turn our attention to some of London’s top archaeological secrets. Until then, why not book onto our behind-the-scenes tour to see more artefacts at the world’s largest Archaeological Archive.

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