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Rare Roman head of Mercury discovered during dig at site of medieval Kent shipyard

A small, 6cm, cream coloured figure of a face, shown in profile, is being held up by a hand. The figure is ceramic and clearly old. In the background, out of focus, is the face of a woman looing at the object.
A Roman head of the God Mercury has been found at Smallhythe in Kent | © National Trust Images - James Dobson

The excavation of a medieval site that was once used for shipbuilding has delighted archaeologists when they also came across earlier evidence of a Roman settlement.

As part of the discovery, finds from a Roman settlement in use between the 1st and 3rd centuries included the head of a figurine of the god Mercury, made from pipeclay, which experts believe to be “incredibly rare”.

Smallhythe Place in Kent, a site cared for by the National Trust, has been the subject of investigations for several years by archaeologists undertaking research on the shipyard by the river Rother which was one of the most significant Royal shipbuilding centres of medieval England.

Excavations which have taken place over the last three years have found evidence of medieval shipbuilding and breaking from the 13th-15th centuries. Over time, the site gradually silted up and the industry declined. However, the discovery of a previously unrecorded Roman settlement has excited the experts.

Religion was a central part of daily life in most Roman provinces, and statues as well as portable figurines of gods like the one discovered at Smallhythe were worshipped by both the Roman elite and the ordinary citizens in their homes.

Pipeclay figurines were made of clays local to central Gaul (modern-day France) and the Rhine-Moselle region and were imported, however most pipeclay figurines found in Britain are of female deities, the majority being of Venus.

Mercury was the god of all the fine arts as well as commerce and financial success, but while he is the most common god for metal figurines, pipeclay examples are extremely rare, with less than ten so far found from Roman Britain.

Nathalie Cohen, National Trust archaeologist explained: “Our excavations at Smallhythe revealed previously undiscovered Roman activity, dating from the 1st-3rd centuries AD, where we found tiles stamped with the mark of the Roman fleet (the Classis Britannica), ceramics including an intact pot, and evidence for buildings, boundary features and pits – which provide tantalising clues to the nature of this riverside community.

“But to come across a head of a figurine of Mercury, in pipeclay, is incredibly rare. Just 5cm tall, the head is clearly visible as Mercury, with his winged headdress. We sadly did not find the remaining part of the figurine.”

The complete figurine probably would have depicted Mercury standing, either draped with a chlamys (a short cloak), or naked, holding a caduceus (a staff with two intertwined snakes).

Dr Matthew Fittock, an expert on ceramic figurines in Roman Britain, commented: “Pipeclay figurines were mainly used by civilians for private religious practice in domestic shrines and occasionally in temples and the graves of often sick children.

“Rather than pieces being discarded because they were broken, there is evidence to suggest that deliberately breaking some figurine heads was an important ritual practice, whereas whole figurines are usually found in graves. Few single pipeclay heads are known in Britain, some of which may have been votive offerings. Finds like this at Smallhythe provide an extremely valuable insight into the religious beliefs and practices of the culturally mixed populations of the Roman provinces.”

Funding for the excavations at Smallhythe Place was generously provided by the National Trust’s Roman Research Fund, the Robert Kiln Fund, the Society of Antiquaries, the Royal Archaeological Institute and the William and Edith Oldham Charitable Trust.

The Mercury head along with other finds from the excavation will go on show from 28 February at Smallhythe Place.