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Divine Vindolanda mystery

Archaeologists attempt to identify mystery horseman after carved relief uncovered at Vindolanda, Hadrian’s Wall.

Vindolanda, the Roman fort immediately south of Hadrian’s Wall in northern England, is a rich archive of legionary life on the frontier. Richie Milor and David Goldwater, two volunteers who have excavated at the site for 15 years, were working to uncover a flagged floor inside a 4th century building. This was a seemingly routine task until they came across what appeared to be a rough stone. Fortunately, they were working slowly and revealed a horse’s leg and the pointed tip of a carved relief. When fully cleared, the sandstone relief depicted a naked male figure carrying a spear in his left hand, and standing in front of either a horse or a donkey. The scene is a complete mystery, for there is no accompanying inscription – and nothing like it is known from Vindolanda.

That the spear-carrying carved character is naked suggests he was not a cavalryman. Most likely he was a god. Mars, the god of War commonly held such a weapon. But above his head are two almost circular features, perhaps wings. This would mean that the figure is that of Mercury, the god of travel. Certainly, as a protector of travellers, Mercury was often associated with horses and donkeys, both common means of Roman travel. Another clue came from where it was found: close to a 4th century cavalry barrack. Perhaps, thinks site archaeologist Marta Alberti, the troops had their own interpretation of Mars, Mercury, or a third unidentified version of the god that merged both qualities.

Whatever the case, this is yet another fascinating find from the site, and will be on show at the Vindolanda museum for the rest of the 2021 season. Booking currently essential.

Image: The Vindolanda Charitable Trust

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