Archive of Transactions

Roman metalwork from the Walbrook – rubbish, ritual or redundancy?

Ralph Merrifield


On display in the Museum of London is a great collection of Roman metalwork, almost exclusively from sites in the valley of the Walbrook, a small stream that flowed through the centre of the Roman city. The collection is outstanding on three counts: its sheer quantity, its uncorroded condition, and the continuing serviceability of most of the objects. This paper challenges the view, put forward in two recent monographs, that the artefacts originated as rubbish which was brought in from all parts of the Roman city and dumped in the Walbrook.

The Walbrook assemblages differ from typical rubbish assemblages from Londinium in two respects: first, many of the objects seem to have been discarded when still serviceable, not broken or scrap, second there is a high proportion of metalwork, though in a restricted range of categories. These categories include tools, weapons (rare), knives, brooches, hair-pins, ligulae, spoons, needles, styli, finger-rings, keys and coins.

The metalwork assemblages tend to be found in the middle reaches of the Walbrook, whereas in the upper reaches excavations have revealed large numbers of human skulls (over 100 on one site alone), all apparently of Roman date. The deposition of skulls as offerings to river gods is well known in Roman Britain, while the tradition of offering high-quality ironwork goes back to the pre-Roman Iron Age or even earlier. In the case of the Walbrook, the distributions of metalwork and skulls are not quite mutually exclusive, but it is possible that they were alternative ritual deposits to the gods of the water, the deposition of skulls being acceptable only in the less Romanised, distant reaches of the stream. Slight variations in composition between different metalwork assemblages may reflect differences in the trades of the votaries. It is noticeable that pointed objects were especially favoured as offerings, though the significance of this is not understood.

The Walbrook valley was reclaimed marshland, and a remarkable parallel exists with the city of Rome itself. There, the Cloaca Maxima was created to drain the land occupied by the Roman Forum, and beside it was built a shrine to the tutelary goddess Venus Cloacina. In the Walbrook valley, an inscription and a votive plaque (both to the Celtic Mother Goddesses), a statue of Mercury and two lead curses have been found, suggesting the presence of shrines nearby. Other ritual objects with distributions which centre on the valley include face-pots, multiple vases and Venus figurines.

[Transactions 46 (1995), 27 – 44; abstract by Francis Grew, 7-Aug-97]

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