A New Roman Gladiator Find from Piddington, Northants

Article excerpt

By an astonishing coincidence a splendid clasp-knife with a copper-alloy handle in the form of a gladiator was unearthed in excavations at Piddington, Northants at the very moment in October 2000 when the special exhibition `Gladiators and Caesars: the Power of Spectacle in Ancient Rome' was being installed at the British Museum. By a further coincidence one of the museum assistants involved in the installation of the exhibition, Tim Chamberlain, is a stalwart of the Piddington excavation team. Without further ado, the director of excavations, Roy Friendship-Taylor, contacted Ralph Jackson, curator of the exhibition, and very generously offered to lend the knife for the duration of the show. Following cleaning and stabilization of the surfaces by Marilyn Hockey of the British Museum Department of Conservation, the knife was put on display alongside similar finds from other provinces of the Roman Empire.

The site of the late Iron Age and Romano-British villa at Piddington lies south of Northampton close to the Nene Valley, and has been under excavation for some 21 years by the Upper Nene Archaeological Society. It has yielded considerable evidence of intensive continuous occupation starting in the mid 1st century BC and culminating in a small Saxon cemetery and a possible Grubenhaus which may date to the early 5th century AD. The site seems to have begun in the late Iron Age, probably around 50 BC, with several round houses and associated ditches and gullies. Shortly after the Roman Conquest there followed a significant military phase lasting just under a decade. Sometime during the early Flavian period, a simple rectangular timber `proto villa', with painted wall plaster, was erected in the area of the round houses, although not directly on top of them. This was shortly followed by two cottage-like stone structures set on two sides of a courtyard, but at an obtuse angle, their orientation seemingly influenced by the alignment of the adjacent early `military ditch'. This stone building saw rapid growth, passing through several rebuilds and a late Antonine fire, until the 3rd century when it finally reached its maximum size, taking the form of a more or less standard winged corridor villa.

The clasp-knife was found during the trowelling of a newly opened area in the southeast corner of the `walled' courtyard. It was lying face uppermost within a small concentration of charcoal in a matrix of mixed building debris and brown clayey soil. This layer, belonging to the final villa phase (Phase 5: AD 200-250), dipped beneath the edge of a large black organic midden deposit dated to the 4th century AD and attributable to the final `squatter' levels which brought occupation of the villa to an end, perhaps in the early 5th century.

The clasp-knife is complete, with a copper-alloy handle and a folding iron blade. Despite its diminutive size the handle (length 70 mm) is one of the most naturalistic and detailed gladiator images in the round from Roman Britain. It is in fine condition, with a smooth, dark-green patina, and shows a gladiator of the heavily-armed secutor class, his distinctive arms and equipment clearly and accurately depicted. They comprise a smooth fish-like vizor-helmet with dorsal ridge, flared neck-guard and characteristically small eyeholes, a straight-bladed sword and curved rectangular shield, both of standard legionary type, thick quilted padding on the sword arm (manica) and leading (left) leg, a short gaiter on the right calf, and a loin cloth (subligaculum) with broad armoured belt (balteus). The modelling, proportions and musculature are well-observed, and the gladiator's stance suggests a position in readiness for combat: the left leg a little advanced, both legs slightly flexed, the sword and shield held in the normal attacking position and the slightly turned head giving an impression of vigilance, always necessary if the secutor was to keep in view his traditional adversary, the lightly-armed but highly mobile net-fighter (retiarius). …