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A Puzzling Romano-British Bronze Head of Marcus Aurelius: Assembling pieces from three museums

20 September 12 -- jsuess
Marcus Aurelius Ashmolean
Bronze head of Marcus Aurelius, AD 161-180, Ashmolean Museum (AN2011.46) (c) Ashmolean Museum

In the Ashmolean Museum’s Rome Gallery you will find a half-life-sized bronze head of the Roman emperor Marcus Aurelius (AD 161-180) discovered near Brackley, Northamptonshire.  The piece is striking not only due to the bright blue glass inlaid eyes, but also its combination of Roman iconography and Celtic style.

The bearded subject closely resembles classical Roman portraits of the famous philosopher emperor, but several features strongly suggest that the piece was made in south-east Britain.  Of particular note are the cone-shaped coils of beard projecting at a sharp angle from his chin, his frowning mouth, and the fact that while little effort has been made to distinguish his nose, ears and eyebrows, his dramatic blue eyes are emphasised with a heavy outline.

Dr Susan Walker, Keeper of Antiquities at the Ashmolean Museum, is currently researching what this portrait of Marcus Aurelius was doing in Brackley.  As part of this research she hopes to place this head in context as one in a series of similar small scale bronze heads of gods and emperors found in South East England, all of which display a similar combination of Roman iconography and Celtic un-naturalistic features.

One method of understanding how these heads relate to one another is to compare the copper alloy from which they are made.  This can be achieved through X-Ray Fluorescence (XRF), which is a non-destructive method of obtaining elemental analysis of metals, glass and ceramics.

This kind of analysis has previously been conducted on the Marcus Aurelius head, and similar bronze heads in the British Museum and Cambridge University Museums.  In September 2012 Dr Walker brought together the final three pieces in the series: a head of Atys from the Ashmolean, a female head, possibly Venus, from Winchester City Museum, and a fine Lucius Verus, Marcus Aurelius’ co-emperor between AD 161-168, from Northampton Museum.

These pieces were taken to the Research Laboratory for Archaeology and the History of Art at the University of Oxford, where Dr Brian Gilmour, Honorary Research Associate at the School of Archaeology, performed the analysis.

Brian Gilmour, Geoff Denford and Susan Walker with bronze female head from Winchester City Museum
(c) University of Oxford

This provided an excellent opportunity for the museums to bring together their objects and expertise.   Gaining access to these bronze pieces is vital to the Ashmolean research project. Dr Walker said that colleagues from the university and from Winchester and Northampton museums are helping her understand the technology used to make these bronze figures of gods and emperors, and their likely purpose in the country side of south-east Britain. Geoff Denford, Head of Museums, Winchester, noted that making objects available to researchers was a key function and purpose of the museum.

In addition to providing access to the XRF tests, Dr Walker’s research will enrich each museum’s knowledge and understanding of the objects in their collection.  Jenny Hand, Curator at Northampton Museum, commented that this would be particularly valuable for their Lucius Verus head, as they do not currently have a Roman specialist.

Jenny Hand and Susan Walker with bronze Lucius Verus head from Northampton Museum
(c) University of Oxford

Dr Walker’s research around the Marcus Aurelius head is expected to be published in Britannia, the journal of the archaeology of Roman Britain, in 2014.  In the meantime, the Marcus Aurelius head and the three bronzes examined in September are all on permanent display at their respective museums.

Read more about the bronze head of Marcus Aurelius in the Ashmolean here.