Walbrook channel: mystery panel

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The mystery leather panel. Stitching holes reveal a depiction of Gladiator fighting a mythical character. Photo: MOLA
The mystery leather panel. Stitching holes reveal a depiction of Gladiator fighting a mythical creature. Photo: MOLA

A 6-month excavation in the heart of London has revealed thousands of artefacts illuminating the city’s Roman past — including a unique sheet of decorated leather.

Working ahead of construction on the Bloomberg site, home to London’s Temple of Mithras, MOLA archaeologists have recovered around 10,000 objects spanning the whole period of Roman occupation in Britain, from the 40s AD to the early 5th century.

They discovered the 1.2m-long panel beneath a pile of amphora sherds, buried in a pit dug beneath the floor of a building thought to be from the 2nd century. Its stitched decorations show a warrior — possibly a gladiator or a heroic figure — with a mythical half-horse, half-fish creature called a hippocampus on either side, and palmettes at each end.

‘We’re very excited about this object – it seems to be completely unique in the Roman Empire,’ MOLA Roman finds specialist Michael Marshall said. ‘As it is unparalleled, we’re not quite sure what the panel is from yet. Personally, I wonder if it is part of a very fancy piece of furniture but after discussing it with colleagues at MOLA and other leather specialists, there have been a range of good guesses such as wall hangings, window surrounds or even part of a vehicle like a litter or chariot’.

He added: ‘It is undergoing conservation at present and it won’t be until afterwards, when we can handle it and disassemble the different layers, that we will be able to tell how it was constructed, what it was attached to and really get to grips with the thing.’

The panel survived because of the site’s location along the Walbrook river, where waterlogged conditions have created a perfect environment for the preservation of organic materials like wood and leather. During the investigation, MOLA discovered timber building platforms, fences, and drains, as well as over 100 fragments of writing tablets, some of which still show traces of lettering, and hundreds of well-preserved shoes.

This article was published in CA 279.

See CA 280 for a full feature on this exceptional site.

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