Wednesday, 9 October 2013

Archaeo newswatch: Finding Nero or Trajan Places?

Occasionally (just occasionally) I find myself in the news (and sometimes even in a good way).

A project I'm currently working on, together with Harry Manley, is the investigation and cataloguing of Roman portrait sculpture in Britain, looking at a series of sometimes highly battered stone artefacts and trying, if at all possible, to provide a positive indentification. Part of the process (and here's the sciencey-bit) includes 3D laser scanning in order that any trace of facial proportions, feature positioning and hairstyle (often the most distinctive part of a state-sanctioned piece of imperial portraiture) can be determined. 

Six months ago we examined a large (over twice life size) marble head held in the stone store of Fishbourne Roman palace in Sussex. The head had been discovered near Bosham, West Sussex, sometime before 1804 and had, since then, been mostly ignored by academics and classical archaeologists alike, the official view being that, given the state of the piece, positive ID would always prove impossible. 

Until a year ago the head had been set into the floor of Chichester District Museum. When the collections moved to the rather splendid ‘Novium’, the 'Bosham Head' ended up in temporary storage. Its new found freedom, in the Fishbourne stone store, meant, however, that for the first time in nearly 100 years the entire face could be seen (and freely accessed).

The 3D laser scan that followed, revealed detail that was difficult to see with the naked eye. Portraits of first and early second century Roman emperors, of which this appeared to be one, were highly realistic pieces of artwork. Find and define key features in both face and hair, and you can positively identify your man. 

Luckily (for us), the scan showed the distinctive physiognomic features and coiffure of Trajan, 13th emperor of Rome.

Trajan, although not perhaps today the most famous of emperors, oversaw the largest expansion of the Roman Empire, into areas of what is now Romania, Bulgaria, Iran, Iraq and Afghanistan, and was officially declared by Roman senate as "optimus princeps" (the best ruler). His successor, Hadrian (much more famous) ensured that a monumental image of Trajan was set up in the harbour area of Ostia, the port of Rome.

Perhaps Hadrian himself, who we know visited Britain in AD 121-2 (when he fixed the northern frontier with a nice new stone wall), oversaw the creation of a huge statue of Trajan in Chichester Harbour, close to modern Bosham. Much like the 'Angel of the North' today (or indeed the statue of a White Horse planned for Dover), new arrivals to the area would have been greeted with an immense sculpture: a piece of public art with a propaganda twist.

So far, so good.

Back at base, work began on the 3D scan, one of many that we've so far compiled from across the country.  Unfortunately, the story of our ‘discovery’ broke before we were quite ready, thanks to a press release emanating from the Novium Museum (which is fair enough, given that it's their artefact). The only real problem was that the release confidently asserted that:

 "A mystery huge stone object known as the Bosham Head which is part of The Novium’s collection could be that of the Roman Emperor Nero"

This, as you may expect, came as a bit of a surprise to us. 

A second press release from the Novium, followed by one compiled by the News Team of Bournemouth University, went out with a revised text, replacing the name ‘Nero’ with ‘Trajan’, but by then the press had hold of the story.

The Portsmouth News was the first to report that "Dr Miles Russell, a senior lecturer in prehistoric and Roman archaeology from Bournemouth University, believes the object, known as the Bosham Head, could be a bust of the Roman Emperor Nero" adding that "depictions of him are rare as he was regarded as a cruel leader and portraits of him were destroyed". 

Websites started popping up the initial news release, Culture 24 noting: "A 26-stone head found in a flower bed in a Hampshire vicarage garden could represent Nero, the rarely-glimpsed Emperor whose first century rule over the Roman Empire began when he was a 14-year-old".

By now we could see where this was going for the process of 'down-the-line-whisper-distortion' was already starting to change key details of the initial and subsequent release (apart from the rather important one that the head was of Trajan rather than Nero) for we know that Nero was 17, not 14, when ascended the throne, whilst the portrait was found in West Sussex not Hampshire and wasn't furthermore first found in a flower bed (although that does sound rather more romantic).

Luckily the radio and TV interviews that followed managed to start the process of ‘setting the record straight’, although conflicting accounts of the ID continue to proliferate. The website Rogue Classicism (for example) noted that "the same identifier" (i.e. me) appeared to be "attributing different identifications" to the Bosham head (and I can understand their confusion). Another website (who I won’t credit - as they seem to relish 'putting the boot in') asked: “Does Dr Russell actually know what he’s talking about? Providing two definitive yet entirely separate identifications in the space of a single day makes one think that perhaps he really doesn’t understand Roman archaeology”. 


Well, for good or bad, at least the story is out there and, hopefully, the Bosham head (whatever anyone thinks of it) can at last ‘come out of the shadows’ in order to take its place as an important artefact in the history (and archaeology) of Roman Britain. 

And who knows, maybe all this publicity will also result in the unearthing of additional pieces of statuary for, somewhere in the area of modern day Bosham, I suspect that Trajan's arms, legs and torso are still awaiting discovery...


  1. Well, as the song goes "we don't need another Nero"

  2. No, but then neither do we need to know the way home.
    In fact if anything all we want is life beyond Thunderdome


    1. Well, I need a Nero, I'm holding out for a Nero 'til the morning light

    2. Let me guess, he’s gotta be strong, and he’s gotta be fast, and he’s gotta be fresh from the fight?

  3. Ah, Dr Russell, pay little heed to the "haters" as I believe they're called online. Anyone who has ever worked even in the most minor capacity with the press will know the facts go into the sausage grinder and come out a significant proportion horsemeat! And hack articles online ignoring this fact to criticise you instead are not worth giving any credit to.

    1. Hi Anonymous
      Thanks! I don't normally pay any attention to that sort of thing, but when false information gets out there, which happens quite a lot in archaeological news stories, it can be a tad galling (to say the least). Could be worse - the first archaeological interpretation of the Bosham head (in the 1840s) suggested it was Thor ! I'm glad no one said that in the press....

  4. He's Thor? I'm not thurprithed the way he was thitting on the thaddle.