I have been to the Museum of London today, I arrived early, I was eager, my excitement palpable. The Roman Gallery was my destination, I am here to see something remarkable, something quite unbelievable, a Roman sculpture, an eagle.
This eagle, the crisp feathered lines, the proud form, the rise and fall of the powerful chest, fool you into thinking this sculpture is modern, recently made. Today, for me standing in front of this amazing artefact, history is not just events that happened in the dim and distant past, it is not about lives half remembered from thousands of years ago. History is happening in front of my eyes. The Roman world is here, I can feel it, our Roman ancestors alive to me as I view this object so fresh and pristine.
As ever, it is the story of discovery that intrigues me. Thank heaven for developers, new hotels and building sites. This treasure would have lain undiscovered if not for the driver of change. The irony of a push to modernity releasing our antiquity.
It sounds like a tried and tested format, archaeologist, developer and museum working together to display our past. But this eagle is something special, Scottish Widows Investment Partnership (SWIP) and their partners Endurance Land, MOLA – Museum of London Archaeology and the Museum of London have achieved something very special. This eagle was only discovered in London, on the Minories, at the end of September and yet here we are barely a month later being allowed to share in its beauty. I volunteer behind the scenes, this gift to us is rare, it normally takes many years for discoveries to go on show. Sometimes a find is so precious, so special, its power can’t be contained and closeted, left to be studied and analysed in quiet corners by studious eyes.
This is not my first encounter with this sculpture, I was privileged to see it for the first time in the Museum of London’s conservation labs, up close and personal we had an introduction. I was entranced from my first viewing, even prone there was an unmistakable power to its curves.
I talked with a Museum of London curator, I chatted with the conservator. The statue 65cm high, made of Cotswolds limestone, the head turned to one side, still watchful and alert even with its prey subdued. The prey, a snake, forked tongue flicking up, resistance still present, a scene alive, the edge of death, the strength of life. Possibly a funerary sculpture, the back of the eagle raw, not worked to a high standard, no doubt destined for an alcove. No need to expend time finishing feathers on an unseen surface.
The precedents can be found across the Roman and Classical world, the eagle, in Latin – aquila, standard of the Roman army, messenger of Jupiter, king of the Gods. A symbol of good defeating the snake representing evil. Perhaps the soul or spirit being taken to the afterlife on a soft feathered flight, the mortal, the weak left behind.
In a previous post I have considered the importance and role of such funerary architecture. The multifaceted role, remembrance, respect, family honour, civic pride. But the eagle for us in this modern world has many connotations. With Egypt, Horus, the falcon, in Greece the eagle belongs to Zeus, in Christianity a symbol of John the Baptist, in France and in Germany the eagle can be found. There is even a Roman intaglio currently on display as part of the Cheapside Hoard exhibition at the Museum of London, the eagle delicately picked out as a token of power and conquest. How do we decipher the message, cut through the layers of interpretation that our modern eyes must see through?
It is the conservator who guides me. Whilst talking to us of the condition the eagle arrived in and the work she has done, she whips out a brush and gently teases a speck of dirt from a feather. For her, when is a job complete? When is the true beauty revealed without stripping away the cloak of time and life that must be present in order for us to see an object in its most natural state? For her, imagery to one side, it is a job to do, a piece to work.
My thoughts turn to a friend of mine, a sculptor of stone. He is currently studying historic carving, technique and application. What if he were to see this master piece. My view is clouded, but surely his view would be pure. The distance of time that separates us would fall away for him. A sculptor modern or ancient would see a piece of stone to work, a job to be done.
I meet my stone mason friend on a Sunday afternoon in a local pub. Amidst afternoon football and modern day chatter we discuss the Greeks, the Romans, the art of working stone. It is a gift to talk to him, he speaks of the work involved, make no mistake, to carve stone by hand is hard graft whatever century you hail from. He tells me of selecting a good ‘clean’ workable block. No stone available in London to work, Cotswolds limestone, a good carving stone, not as good as marble but still good. The noise, the chink a good piece of stone makes, the need to hear the imperfections in a block before you start. The size, working to minimize wastage, why give yourself extra stone to chisel away?
The eagle is good, the dimensions correct, the sculptor knew what an eagle looked like. A simple thing, perhaps an obvious thing, even working from a copy perhaps he drew his design first. Maybe feather sizes worked from a template. I ask a burning question for a novice of such work. How easy it is to break off a head or wing when working the stone? Can you imagine having spent weeks at work then one wrong move and irrevocable damage. He tells me where he would start the work, the form, outline, the head working down allowing the stone to support the neck. The talons, perhaps worked from either side to give support. The unfinished back would no doubt still yield the chisel marks.
I start to look at this sculpture, this Roman piece, not as art, but as endeavour, as sweat and sore fingers, dusty hands. My favourite part of our conversation, he tells me of the chisels blunt probably after only ten minutes or so of work. Perhaps an apprentice, his job to sharpen the tools, a whole day spent repeating his role, maybe one day hoping for a commission of his own. Suddenly I no longer see this sculpture in isolation, I imagine the touch of a hand on the wings, sure fingers tracing the curve of the beak, the industry behind the art.
We finally talk of life choices, careers, decisions. Why choose to work stone? He tells me of the sense of creative achievement, the sense of permanence to the work. This near 2,000 year old eagle is proof of this simple truth. I leave him and my local full of imagery and wonder at a worker I can never hope to fully understand.
Today I return to see this eagle, I stand by her side (we are past formalities now). We may not know the sculptor of this talisman, to whom it was erected, but that does not mar her significance. We have resurrected her in a London she came to found and a Britain she came to conquer. She is all conquering and her beauty has conquered me.
After I reluctantly leave her side I wander through the Roman Galleries, I read tombstone dedications, time and again they begin..
“To the spirits of the departed…”
I look across at our eagle, her resurrection feels like a dedication to our Roman ancestors. We are paying homage, we are honoring the sculptors skill, the Roman way of life. She will continue her silent watch over our London streets. With such an amazing guardian, our Roman ancestors, their spirit will never depart, will never be forgotten, and I for one am so glad she is here.
With thanks to Roy Stephenson, Caroline McDonald and the Conservation team at Museum of London.
Special thanks to ‘Stone Man’ Lawrence Dennison.
The Eagle will be on display at the Museum of London for 6 months from 30th October 2013, you can find her in the Roman Galleries and see her for free! Open every day 10-6pm
The Cheapside Hoard – London’s Lost Jewels is at the Museum of London until 27th April 2014 – for ticket prices please see the Museum of London website