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Head from a statue of Mercury

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Height: 2.000 m (estimate of the complete statue)

P&EE 1978 1-2 1

Prehistory and Europe

    Head from a statue of Mercury

    Roman Britain, 2nd century AD
    From Uley, Gloucestershire

    Classical sculpture from Britain

    Excavations at West Hill, Uley, Gloucestershire in 1977-9 revealed evidence of a religious site which was probably in use from Neolithic times to the early medieval period. In its Roman phase it can be identified as a temple to the Roman god Mercury. An Iron Age shrine and surrounding enclosure were replaced in the early second century AD by a stone-built Romano-Celtic temple, which was in turn enlarged in the fourth century. Around the temple were other buildings including living quarters, guest accommodation and shops. By the fifth century AD, pagan worship at the site may have been replaced by Christianity.

    This head, from the principal cult-statue of Mercury, was found in the 1979 season of work, carefully buried and concealed in the post-Roman phase of the buildings. The appearance of the rest of the statue can be inferred from the survival on the site of other fragments, including the right knee and lower leg, the left thigh, and parts of animals' bodies. A little larger than life-size, the statue stood on a base with two of the god's animal companions, a ram and a cockerel.

    The head is an outstanding work. Though carved in local Cotswold limestone, it is wholly Roman in style, showing little or no sign of native British taste. The technical and stylistic details of the carving indicate that the statue was made in the later second century AD by an artist who was totally familiar both with the Graeco-Roman iconographic tradition and with the distinctive nature of the local stone. The only lost details which would have slightly altered Mercury's appearance are the small wings which probably rose directly from the curly hair.

    T.W. Potter, Roman Britain, 2nd edition (London, The British Museum Press, 1997)

    A. Woodward and P. Leach, The Uley shrines: excavations (London, English Heritage in association with The British Museum Press, 1993)

    T. Richard Blurton (ed.), The enduring image: treasures, exh. cat (British Council, 1997)

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