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By Alex Keyes
For most of the pre-modern items in Louth Museum’s collection tracing their origin is relatively easy. Today archaeological finds are scrupulously recorded, with huge amounts of contextual information being available to the researcher. However, this was not always the case, in the 19th century the discipline of archaeology was in its infancy and recording methods were considerably more rudimentary than today. The origin of casual finds such as those made by agricultural or construction workers were almost never noted, while at the same time there existed a thriving trade in antiquarian objects. Today we might label people who seek out historical items based on their saleability as looters, though at the time their activities were nearly always within the law. In Egypt for example, vast quantities of ancient artefacts were legally removed to Europe and North America by antiquities dealers, eager to cash in the craze for all things ancient Egyptian. A common feature n many middle class Victorian homes was ‘the cabinet of curiosities’, a display case which often contained a variety of fossils, ancient coins and pottery, examples of ethnographic art, and perhaps a piece of mummy if the owner was of a particularly morbid disposition. This leads us on to today’s object, an artefact which probably began its life in a Roman family home, become a prized feature in such a curiosity cabinet, and today adorns a display case in the museum’s Ludalinks gallery.
The object in question is an ornate bronze statue of the god Mercury dating from around the 1st-2nd century CE and measuring about 10cm tall when stood upright, the god wears a toga and is missing most of his arms. When new the statue would probably have held a caduceus, a magic wand entwined with two serpents. The object was given as part of a donation to the museum in 1908 by the Rev W.H ‘Jumbo Mills’, a teacher at King Edward’s Grammar school known for his interest in classical civilisations and collection of historic items. Mills’s bequest has been on display at the museum since the 1890s and includes one of the institution’s most famous objects, the second century Roman trulla.
Fresco from Pompeii showing Mercury with his characteristic caduceus
Where the items originally came from is unknown, one piece, a cauldron handle is pre-Roman, originating from the Etruscan civilisation of central Italy, while the trulla probably has its origins in the Balkans. We can be certain then that Mills did not limit his collecting to sites within Lincolnshire, and probably purchased his Roman objects from London auction houses or dealers. That said there is no reason why our statue could not have originated in Lincolnshire, Roman Lincoln (Lindum Colonia) processed scores of talented craftsmen, as evidenced by the varied contents of ‘The Collection’ museum in the city, and finds of similar statues in the county are relatively common.
Lincoln was almost certainly a centre for the worship of Mercury, in Roman mythology messenger to the gods and patron deity of trade, financial gain, commerce and travellers. It is not surprising he found many willing devotees in what was then one of the most prosperous trading ports in Britain. In Roman religion worship of the gods was transactional and involved the making of bargains. A human promised to honour and make offerings to a particular god and in exchange the deity would confer on them certain rewards. As particular gods were associated with different spheres or aspects of nature an individual’s worship was directed in terms of what they needed, the god Saturn for example was associated with agriculture so the offerings and prayers of farmers were sent in his direction.
This very similar depiction of Mercury was found in the village of Broughton Common.
In towns guilds of worshippers were formed which honoured particular gods, and in Lincoln a group of the city’s merchants probably formed one to worship Mercury where prayers and sacrifices were offered in the hope of good financial returns on their investments. Such guilds commonly paid for and maintained shrines where members could meet and worship, in 1845 an inscription was uncovered on Lincoln high street, below steep hill reading “Vic Hrapo Mercvre[n]sum” which roughly translates as “Mercury is seen in residence here”. This was probably the site of one such shrine which would have contained a large statue of the god.
The small size of the museum’s statue however, indicates it was likely for private use. Some Roman travellers carried small religious statues with them, though at 10cm tall our example would have been on the hefty side. More plausibly it formed part of a personal shrine within someone’s home, probably alongside other gods important to a family. Archaeological evidence from Roman houses show that may had special niches cut into walls to house the family’s gods. Such statues are often labelled Lares, however technically Lares are guardian deities specific to a household rather than gods common to everyone. Statues of gods could be appealed to in private prayer or brought out at major festivals, Mercury’s celebration was known as the Mercuralia and took place on the 15th of May. In the city of Rome merchants would sprinkle themselves, their merchandise, and their ships with water drawn from the well known as the aqua Mercurii.
We will never know If Mills acquired his Mercury statue in Lincolnshire and at this point it is impossible to conclude whether it can tell us anything about the worship of Mercury in the county. On balance, a Lincolnshire origin is unlikely considering the number of sources it could potentially have come from; however, the possibility remains. Whether the statue was cast in Rome, Antioch, Alexandria or Lincoln it is a beautiful example of craftsmanship from the high Roman Empire and reveals a huge amount about private religious practise during the period.
© Alex Keyes 2017
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