An Archaeological Mystery Solved


Is it just me or has there been an upsurge in Classics and Ancient History related stories featured in the media of late?

imagesSeriously though, over the past couple of months barely a day goes by without me checking my social media accounts and finding yet another interesting story! In the past couple of weeks alone we’ve had the ‘explosive’ (pun intended) discovery of Pompeii graffito which has brought into question the traditional dating of the eruption of Vesuvius, not to mention an equally volatile and rather public furore amongst some academics, all who have their own opinions, interpretations and ideas about this recent find (which was worthy of media coverage alone)! There’s been more finds at Vesuvian sites, including six skeletons that amongst other things have served to highlight the human response to natural disasters _103972644_shipwreck_640-ncin ancient times. We’ve had the remarkable find of a 2400 year old Greek ship at the bottom of the Black Sea, a discovery that has invited many different interpretations in the media, some based on evidence, some based on myth and some, well, based on very little concrete at all! There’s also been increased and continued attention to the actual study of Classics, or more specifically it’s appropriation by the Alt-Right as a tool of misogyny and racism as illustrated in Dr Donna Zuckerberg’s recent book – Not All Dead White Men: Classics and Misogyny in the Digital Age, a book that is certainly going on my reading list! But in this post I don’t want to talk about the ‘big’ and ‘sensational’ stories, I wanted to talk about one of the less publicised local stories that’s been in the news lately, plus as Halloween is fast approaching I felt a touch of the macabre was in order!


A recent story to hit the local news here in Yorkshire was about an old archaeological find, discovered under York railway station way back in 1872. What has made this artefact so enticing is that it had remained a puzzle to archaeologists until now. Indeed in true media style this 150 year old ‘conundrum’ has been spun out to make it a very appealing story! This baffling artefact was excavated from the grave of a Roman female who was thought to be in her twenty’s when she died. As it had no known function until recently it was simply described as a small, flat golden plate measuring about 3 inches long, it currently resides at the Yorkshire Museum. It was only recently, thanks to the worldwide collaboration between archaeologists and experts in the field that the artefact has finally been identified after so long and it has now been established that this small gold piece is probably a mouth plaque, and it’s approximately 1800 years old. But more significantly, it’s incredibly rare, with only around 24 known to exist around the world and the very first to be uncovered in Britain.


OK, so it’s a mouth plaque, sounds quite simple doesn’t it? Well apparently not, because other than its implied function, what was its true purpose and why did the Romans use it in this burial? Well this is a question that is open to debate and there a various theories. One theory suggests that such artefacts were considered to be protective in nature, just like amulets to ward of evil and perhaps prevent spirits from entering the deceased body – protective magic and so on. However, other less complementary theories argue that mouth plaques may have been used as ‘sinister talismans’ to keep the dead dead by silencing a corpse so that it couldn’t haunt the living. I thought I would do a little further research on this peculiar little artefact, but it seems that there’s very little out there at the moment. The articles covering this find attributes it to the eastern provinces of the Roman empire, suggesting that this funerary practice originated in that particular area of the Roman World, so for anyone wanting to explore this further it might be worth using funerary practices in the eastern provinces as a starting point.


What now? Well, now that this find has been identified it’s down to the experts to learn as much as they can about it. In fact the Yorkshire Museum has already stated that it intends to carry out DNA tests on the skeleton to try to ascertain where the deceased Roman women actually came from. But perhaps more importantly, this little gold mouth plaque has given us an intriguing insight into the funerary practices of the Roman people and it has brought into clearer focus the varied multi-cultural practices throughout the empire as a whole.


If you want to follow-up on some of the sources of information in this post then you can do so by checking out these links…


Oh, here’s some #ClassicallyInspired Halloween Pumpkins for your amusement… Courtesy of Twitter.


You can also follow me @classicalfix 


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