A History of STOKE GIFFORD & Nearby Parishes
Edited by Adrian Kerton
Reproduced with the kind permission of the developers, Redrow Homes and Cotswold Archaeology.
More about this fascinating find with superb 3D photos can be found on the Cotswold Archaeology website
In the autumn of 2016, Cotswold Archaeology excavated a site on land previously owned by Dings Crusaders Rugby Football Club, Stoke Gifford, prior to development of the site for housing by Redrow Homes South West. Archaeological fieldwork was completed in March 2018 and CgMs Heritage acted as archaeological consultants throughout the archaeological works.
The excavation revealed remarkable evidence for a Roman villa and many associated features. While many of the villa’s walls and floor surfaces had been removed once the building fell into disuse, in some areas intact walls and floors survived, allowing us to get a good understanding of the layout of the villa. Well-preserved features included the remains of hypocausts and evidence for a courtyard or garden, as well as a series of outbuildings, external to the main courtyard and house.
The main house originated as a simple rectangular building containing three rooms, but over time projecting wings were added to the north and south, while the north wing was sub-divided into three rooms, including a kitchen. In the south wing there was a large living room, heated by a channelled hypocaust system. A further development included the addition of a range of rooms to the rear of the building, one of which contained a hypocaust system. At this stage a portico was also added to the front of the house, extending between the projecting wings. The main house had now reached its maximum extent, c. 29m long and c. 21m wide.
The site produced a rich finds assemblage, including dress accessories, a coin hoard, and, most interesting of all, an extremely rare bronze hanging lamp. This exciting object has been examined by Anthony Beeson, and is the subject of our recent website story.
The lamp is clearly the most significant artefact recovered during the archaeological fieldwork and the form and subject appear, at present, to be unique. Several specialists have provided commentary on the find and no doubt the interpretation will develop as the post-excavation works proceed.
The unusual 1st century AD copper alloy lamp
Found during the original stripping of the site, it probably had found its way into a ditch at some time long after its manufacture in the 1st century AD. The bronze has a high lead content and so has a silvery appearance. It is quite well preserved although has suffered losses to the figure. Cast in one piece, its complex and hollow form makes it an extraordinary example of bronze-smithing. It is now missing its separately moulded and attached base together with the hands and head of the subject who wears a tunic and is shown sitting cross-legged.
Several specialists have been approached as to the identity of the individual portrayed. The cross-legged pose of the figure and its wearing of a long-sleeved tunic has led to the interesting suggestion that the figure represents a Buddha. There was certainly contact between the Roman world and India at this period, although there are no known examples of Roman-made artefacts with Buddhist imagery and one wonders if the average affluent citizen would have been able to identify the subject.
The suggested Alexandrian provenance might perhaps indicate an Egyptian subject which might include the popular Bes. The excavators’ favoured interpretation was that the figure represents Silenus, the obese and drunken companion of Dionysus/Bacchus and part of the god’s retinue. Silenus was a popular figure in Roman art and a number of bronze lamps are known which incorporate him into the design, including an example from London. They often show him seated upon a wine skin (that forms the body of the lamp) or trying to drink from a bowl that is moulded from the lamp’s oil-hole. Typically he is shown nude, and often appears much older as Papposilenus, a corpulent bearded and balding figure. Silenus can be shown with the attributes of a wine cup, wine-skin or playing the lyre – and it has been suggested that the possibly interchangeable hands on this example featured such accessories.
The lamp is an exciting discovery. As an iconographer, my personal opinion of the figure is that I do not think that it can be equated with Silenus as neither the pose, nor the tunic favour the interpretation. Silenus is pot-bellied, generally mostly nude and this figure is not. Even given that the head was cast separately, there seems insufficient space for the beard of Silenus to fit into the space available between the shoulders and this area of the tunic shows no signs of soldering. The figure wears a voluminous and unbelted tunic but, when viewed from the side, is not corpulent. The same points also would rule out the fat and generally naked Bes as well. It actually gives me the impression that it is a young person. If it is from Alexandria then I would suggest that it is rather a genre figure from everyday life, as Alexandrian art adapted animals, children, slaves, street sellers etc as ornaments. The figure sits cross- legged in the traditional manner of an Egyptian scribe or musician, so again he could be either but perhaps the most likely interpretation is that the figure is reading a scroll by the light of the lamp (although writing a scroll is still a possibility).
Given the suggestion that the missing limbs may have been interchangeable it will be interesting if any signs of soldering the hands and head firmly in place survive. Possibly these might have been in some different material such as ivory, but I suspect they were much more likely to have been in bronze or another metal. Something must have been attached to the rectangular mount with a hole in front of him. One might expect hanging chains to be attached to the loop behind the spout and to the missing loop behind the figure, but often there is a third attached in the middle about there. Alternatively there may have been an object associated with the figure attached here. Whatever the interpretation the lamp is a really important find.
by Anthony Beeson