Antiquities specialist Claudio Corsi looks at an ancient bronze licking dog, the rarest object from a complete hoard of Roman bronze artefacts found by metal detectorists in England in 2017
On a Bank Holiday Sunday in August 2017 two metal detectorists, with a combined 40 years’ experience, stumbled across one of the most intriguing hoards of Roman artefacts to be discovered in Britain in recent memory.
Under the cultivated earth of a farmer’s field in Gloucestershire in south-west England, the pair discovered an unusual deposit of broken hinges, buckles and studs, as well as 20 fragments of a four-foot tall bronze figure, pieces of cast animal-shaped bowls, half a pair of tweezers and the handle of a frying pan.
Additionally, there was a coin minted in Trier in Germany between 321-324 AD featuring a portrait of the Roman Emperor Crispus, the eldest son of the Emperor Constantine. The date of the coin provided a date after which the hoard must have been buried.
Among the find there was one object which had miraculously survived intact — a bronze statue of a ‘licking’ dog, the only example ever found in Britain.
The bronze statue may have come from a Roman temple that had been excavated on the nearby Lydney Estate, explains Christie’s antiquities specialist Claudio Corsi. ‘The temple was dedicated to Nodens, a Celtic god associated with healing, medicine, hunting and crucially, dogs,’ he adds. ‘It was believed that dogs had healing powers and could aid recovery by licking the wound of an injured person.’
Alternatively, the bronze statue, which is 21.4 centimetres in length, including his wagging tongue, may have come from a yet-to-be-discovered ancient Roman temple in the area. Two small holes drilled between areas of carved, feathery geometric relief suggest that it might have been attached to a larger statue. Corsi speculates that this may have been a figure of Nodens, or one of the dog’s ‘patients’.
After finding the hoard the pair of detectorists reported it to the archaeology department of the the local council, which sent a professional to excavate the site, the precise location of which remains a secret.
The artefacts then went to Bristol Museum to be cleaned, photographed, catalogued and safeguarded. Archaeologists at the museum observed that the objects appeared to have been deliberately broken and buried for safekeeping, probably as scrap to be re-smelted. Why the original owner never returned to retrieve them remains a mystery. The hoard was sold as one lot — a time capsule in effect — which realised £137,500 in the Antiquities sale in London on 3 July.
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‘Metal detecting is a great way for people to contribute to history,’ explains Corsi, ‘and this is definitely the find of a lifetime. But if you want to give it a go make sure you follow the guidelines set out by the Portable Antiquities Scheme, and always get permission from the landowner in advance.’