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‘Extremely rare’ treasure found at forgotten ancient Roman settlement in UK. See it

Scoop by scoop, archaeologists sifted through the tan-brown dirt of the United Kingdom and dumped it into a bucket. They were excavating the ruins of a medieval coastal community.

But their search revealed a different lost settlement — one with an “extremely rare” treasure.

Archaeologists unearthed the ruins of a forgotten ancient Roman settlement while excavating a medieval shipyard in Smallhythe Place, National Trust Archaeology said in a Feb. 23 Facebook post. The settlement was over 1,700 years old, dating from the first century A.D. to the third century A.D.

“We found tiles stamped with the mark of the Roman fleet (the Classis Britannica), ceramics including an intact pot, and evidence for buildings, boundary features and pits,” archaeologist Nathalie Cohen said in the post.

An intact ancient Roman pot unearthed at Smallhythe. Photo from Nathalie Cohen and National Trust
An intact ancient Roman pot unearthed at Smallhythe. Photo from Nathalie Cohen and National Trust

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But one artifact stood out: a roughly 2-inch tall head carved from clay.

Archaeologists identified the head as part of a pipeclay figurine of the ancient Roman god Mercury, the organization said. A photo shows the creamy white carving.

The ancient Roman figurine depicting the head of Mercury found at Smallhythe. Photo from James Dobson and National Trust
The ancient Roman figurine depicting the head of Mercury found at Smallhythe. Photo from James Dobson and National Trust

“To come across a head of a figurine of Mercury, in pipeclay, is incredibly rare,” Cohen said.

Mercury was the ancient Roman deity for fine arts, commerce and trade. “While he is the most common god for metal figurines, pipeclay examples are extremely rare, with less than ten so far found from Roman Britain,” archaeologists said.

A brick fragment found at the ancient Roman settlement in Smallhythe. Photo from Nathalie Cohen and National Trust
A brick fragment found at the ancient Roman settlement in Smallhythe. Photo from Nathalie Cohen and National Trust

Matthew Fittock, an expert of ancient Roman ceramics, explained that “pipeclay figurines were mainly used by civilians for private religious practice in domestic shrines and occasionally in temples and the graves of often sick children.”

“Rather than pieces being discarded because they were broken, there is evidence to suggest that deliberately breaking some figurine heads was an important ritual practice,” he said in the post. “Whole figurines are usually found in graves.”

An ancient Roman pot found fragmented. Photo from Sam Milling and National Trust
An ancient Roman pot found fragmented. Photo from Sam Milling and National Trust

Archaeologists did not find any other fragments of the Mercury figurine.

“This complete figurine probably would have depicted Mercury standing, either draped with a chlamys (a short cloak), or naked, holding a caduceus (a staff with two intertwined snakes),” the National Trust wrote in a Feb. 22 news release.

The pipeclay head and other ancient Roman artifacts will be on display at Smallhythe Place starting Feb. 28, the organization said.

Smallhythe Place is in Kent, a county along the southeastern coast, and about 50 miles southeast of London.

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