Roman era wrestler figurine turns out to be an African warrior

A figurine produced during the Roman era that was previously thought to depict a wrestler has been revealed as an African warrior.

Research by English Heritage carried out by curator Cameron Moffett suggests the figurine originally carried a spear in one hand.

Discovered in the 1920s in a Roman cemetery at Wall Roman Site in Staffordshire, the figure is believed to date from the 1st century AD.

(English Heritage/PA)
(English Heritage/PA)

It is just 55mm high and made of lead.

The figure wears an armlet on each upper arm and a necklace of large beads, and experts believe it was included as a grave good in an interred cremation burial.

Its facial expression was originally interpreted as one of suffering and experts concluded the figurine depicted a slave, before analysis in the 1990s led to a new belief that it was a wrestler.

It is now thought that a previously unobserved socket in the figurine’s right hand would have held a weapon, likely a bronze spear, and that the figure would have stood upright.

According to English Heritage, it is “very unlikely” the piece was made in Britain and it is “sufficiently unusual” to indicate it was made on the continent, possibly close to the Mediterranean.

Wall Roman Site in Staffordshire (English Heritage/PA)
Wall Roman Site in Staffordshire (English Heritage/PA)

Mr Moffet said: “These fragments of past lives are vital to our understanding of the people who lived thousands of years ago, but it is also interesting how interpretations can change over time.

“In the 1920s this figurine was thought to depict an enslaved person, and then a wrestler, but we now know that both of those assertions were mistaken.

“This object actually depicts an African warrior, standing tall and carrying a spear, and the fact that it was a grave good indicates that it would have been a significant possession to its owner.

“During the Roman invasion of Britain, huge numbers of people travelled here from many different parts of the Empire, and while we can only guess at the identity of the object’s carrier, I think it’s very possible that its owner may have seen something of themselves in this object, so important was it to them that they chose to be united with it in death.”

The figurine is on display at Wall Roman Site’s museum until the end of October when the museum will close for winter.