Faces from the past

Published: 08 September 2021

Last update: 08 September 2021

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This blog post is written by Nancy Grace, Archaeologist Nancy Grace Archaeologist
Close-up of head of the Wimpole deity figure

As archaeologists, we spend our time looking at evidence about what life was like in the past. This can be artefacts such as animal bones or pottery, personal belongings like jewellery, or the remains of buildings. Other information comes from the layers we excavate and the pollen, snails and charcoal we find within them. From these we can deduce what the environment was like and what plants and crops grew nearby. However, one thing we rarely get a chance to see are the faces of the people who used these objects and structures and lived in the landscapes. In this blog, Nancy Grace shares some of our favourite faces from the past.

Sometimes there is chance to reconstruct what someone may have looked like from human remains. For those who remember the TV series ‘Meet the Ancestors’ this involves scanning a skull and building up layers of muscle using modelling clay or now just a clever computer programme. These are rare cases, but all is not lost to us as we can also get a feel for the faces of the past from other things, like sculpture, paintings, carvings and even on pottery. They are often full of character and reveal many clues, from hairstyles to clothing.

Figure from Wimpole, Cambridgeshire

With colleagues from Oxford Archaeology East, our archaeologists investigated part of the ancient landscape of the Wimpole Estate as part of a new visitor welcome and car park project in 2018. The work revealed a late Iron Age to early Roman rural settlement. Among the many finds was a 5cm-high figurine made from copper alloy and sporting what looks like a ‘mullet’ hair-do. Although he was initially identified as the god of fertility Cernunnos, it's now thought he may represent an unknown deity - his true identity remains a mystery....

Trust archaeologist Shannon Hogan tells me that, after cleaning and conservation, they could see some remarkable details, including his hairstyle and moustache, which might be indicative of contemporary trends or perhaps were 'typical' for depictions of this deity.

The figure dates to the 1st century AD, and could be of Roman manufacture, but he does have Celtic traits such as his oval eyes. Also, the torc he is holding - an open-ended metal neck ring - is a typical Iron Age object. We have limited insights into the appearance of ordinary people in this period, so this figure gives us some idea of how they looked, or perhaps how they saw their gods. It probably originally served as the handle of a spatula for mixing medicines or wax for writing tablets. The fact that the object is likely of Roman manufacture but exhibits Celtic artistic traits and possibly a local hair style, neatly demonstrates the coming together of different cultural traditions in the 1st century AD.

Medieval man from Calke Abbey, Derbyshire

From our archaeologist Rosalind Buck, I heard about this sculpture found when the Trust acquired Calke Abbey in the 1980s. There were several archaeological excavations by Gary Marshall around the area of the main house to find out more about its history; this included investigating under the floor in one of the rooms on the ground floor of the East Wing. The excavation in this room revealed the remains of a wall which was thought likely to be part of the medieval monastic priory which existed at Calke between 1115 and 1537 AD.

12th century corbel found at Calke Abbey, Derbyshire
masonry from Calke Abbey
12th century corbel found at Calke Abbey, Derbyshire

From the outer phase of this wall a piece of carved masonry was discovered. The carving is in the form of a human head, strikingly angular, giving the face a rather mystical and serene quality. The eyes appear to be closed suggesting the portrayed figure is praying or meditating. It is thought to be a corbel (a type of bracket) bearing the mask of a monastic figure, and has been dated to c.1125, thus contemporary with the establishment of the priory at Calke. Although we can’t link the face to a particular individual from Calke it is intriguing to wonder if this decorative piece was inspired by of one of the monks who once lived at the abbey.

Tree graffiti figures from Hatchlands, Surrey

People have made carvings in tree bark, also known as arboroglyphs, for many years. Common examples include initials, sometimes with dates or names inside a heart. At Hatchlands Park, Trust archaeologist James Brown has recorded beech trees with more unusual carvings, depicting people. They are quite hard to see but there are single figures on each tree. Both are male and about 50cm high. One is wearing a hat and smoking a pipe. The second has a better-defined face and may represent a soldier as he has a hat and a buttoned uniform.

graffiti face from Hatchlands

Detail of the figure with a hat and pipe

Graffiti face from Hatchlands

The face of the second figure on a tree at Hatchlands

There is some text next to the first figure, but it is not legible as a second trunk has grown next to it. The second figure has a speech bubble but again the words are not legible. The next stage of research into these figures is to see what was happening in the area around the time the trees were young but large enough to be carved. We may find clues as to who carved them and why.

So, when walking in woodland do look out for tree graffiti - you never know what you may find.

The Roman lady of Shapwick, Dorset

My own two favourite faces come from Dorset. On the Kingston Lacy estate there is a site of a small Roman town. We have done geophysical surveys and some excavations to see whether it is vulnerable to ploughing and to date the settlement and associated fort. The excavations revealed ditches and building debris including some painted wall plaster, pottery, gaming counters and animal bones, including six beaver molars and the skull of a small dog.

But the star of the show was not retrieved during excavations, she was found by chance. One of the rangers was walking over the freshly ploughed field to speak to the tenant farmer. Being interested in archaeology he was keeping an eye on the ground, when what he thought was a pale stone caught his eye. It seemed unusual, so he went to pick it up. Imagine his surprise when he turned it over and saw a face looking back at him!

Roman sculpture from Kingston Lacy
Roman sculpture
Roman sculpture from Kingston Lacy

Even with the slight damage to her nose from rolling around in the plough soil for centuries, many details can be seen including her hair style forming a high band across her head. She is thought to be 2nd century in date and is made from marble, part of what was probably a small decorative statue which perhaps graced a fine Roman dwelling.  

'Ralph' the pottery head from Corfe Castle, Dorset

In 1986 I started my career with the National Trust at Corfe Castle and in the first two years we excavated the outer gatehouse and part of the outer bailey. We found lots of pottery, lead window cames, oyster shells, bones and iron nails. Among the pottery we found this little green glazed head, with a pinched-out nose and what appears to be a coronet– a thin band circling the top of the head, decorated with impressed dots, and hair suggested by incised combed lines. It appears to have been formed as a separate element, with a short, tapering ‘peg’ at the base for insertion into a vessel. The most likely interpretation is that this is part of an aquamanile, which is a type of jug, often fashioned in anthropomorphic or zoomorphic shapes and used for hand washing. He may have been from one in the form of a rider on a horse.

medieval ceramic

Ralph faces the camera

medieval ceramic

Ralph in profile

medieval ceramic

The top of Ralph's head!

We held a competition during the Festival of Archaeology one year to find a name for him, and Ralph came out on top. This was very appropriate as it was Ralph Banks who gave Corfe Castle and the Kingston Lacy estate to the National Trust in 1982.

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