Metal finds excavated from the waterlogged deposits in the Walbrook valley tend to be quite well preserved and have very little corrosion but they aren’t always found in one piece. Amongst the finds from MOLA’s current excavations are fragments of several decorated copper-alloy vessels whose original shape can be determined by comparing them with more complete examples found elsewhere in the Roman Empire.
One of the finds is a little copper-alloy roundel, cast in one piece, showing the head of a youthful Bacchus, the god of wine. He can be identified by the vine leaves over the ears and the bunches of grapes in the hair and below the chin. A wide hook projects at the top. An almost exact parallel for the design is known from the Roman site at Augst in Switzerland. By looking at mounts of the same form which are still attached to their vessels we can demonstrate that it came from a bowl with a handle, which to modern eyes looks rather like a saucepan, but which was known in the ancient world as a trulleum. The roundel would have been fastened to the outside of the bowl below the rim opposite the handle as shown on a complete late 1st century AD pan from Dowalton Loch in Scotland here.
These vessels are often found with jugs and are frequently shown as part of sets used in sacrificial rituals, for hand washing or for pouring libations and it is quite likely that they were multi-purpose. Bacchus appears frequently in Roman art and is shown on many objects used in daily life. It is known that the god was widely venerated in Roman Britain and there are now many Bacchic images from London. A figurine of the god shown below was found during MOLA excavations at the nearby site of No 1 Poultry, also in the Walbrook Valley, during the 1990s. Apart from its obvious connections with drinking and feasting, the cult of Bacchus was important as a mystery religion, associated with the annual cycle of regeneration, with death and rebirth.
It would be tempting to see this new find as being associated with the nearby Bacchic temple thought to have sat beside the Walbrook in the 4th century AD, but it is from a much earlier vessel. It is not impossible that the attachment was taken from the vessel and was kept as a talisman or cult object, but at this stage this can only be speculation and its significance will become clearer as research progresses and the area from which it was excavated is examined in more detail.
Sometimes more substantial fragments or several pieces from the same object are found. Six pieces of a copper-alloy vessel were found together in the robber cut for the wall of a building. It was carefully excavated and the position of the fragments in the ground gives us some indication of their relationship and its original form. X-raying and careful cleaning by our conservators after it was lifted revealed the intricate red, white and blue enamelled decoration and evidence for its construction in the form of rivets and rivet holes.
The original shape can be determined by comparison with a near complete example from a 2nd century AD burial at Corbridge near Hadrian’s Wall and our flask would originally have had a pedestal base and a short neck projecting up from the top. An illustration of the Corbridge flask can be seen in a past edition of the Roman Finds Group newsletter and a photographic reconstruction of some of the Walbrook fragments showing how they would have gone together can be seen below. These flasks were probably used for storing perfumes, oils or unguents and there are only about a dozen similar vessels known from the entire Roman Empire.
The style of the enamelled decoration has clear roots in the Late Iron Age Celtic art of Britain and the distribution of these vessels is mostly British with a few found further afield e.g. in Germany and Ukraine. This suggests that they were made in this country and part of a local craft tradition that was adapting to new Roman markets. Several types of enamelled vessels are known to have been made in northern England during the late 1st and 2nd centuries AD and a stone mould for an object with a spiral scroll design closely related to the decoration found on top of these flasks is also known from Wales and can be seen here.
Research on these vessels is ongoing and they are just two of the thousands of fantastically preserved finds from MOLA’s ongoing excavations, all of which have important stories to tell us about the people who lived in Roman London. The trulleum is a very classical style of vessel and would have been imported, perhaps from Italy. The flask was a high status object, seemingly owned by a person of some wealth who was again engaging in Roman-style practices of washing but who had an appreciation for an artistic style which was much more local, hinting at the development of new Romano-British identities.
For the parallel from Augst and some other examples of trulleum mounts see:
Kaufmann-Heinimann:, A 1998 Götter und Lararien aus Augusta Raurica. Herstellung, Fundzusammenhänge und sakrale Funktion figürlicher Bronzen in einer römischen Stadt 350 S., 635 Abb. mit über 1400 Einzelobjekten, 2 Übersichtstabellen.
For more on enamelled vessels in Roman Britain see:
Breeze, D. 2012 (ed) The First Souvenirs: Enamelled Vessels from Hadrian’s Wall CWAAS
Casey, P.J. & Hoffmann, B. 1995, ‘Excavations on the Corbridge Bypass, 1974′ Archaeologia Aeliana XXII, 17-45
Many thanks also to Dr Adam Gwilt of NMW, Cardiff for information about the Worm’s Head mould!