Petrified… Medusa gets a taste of her own medicine

MOLA team

During archaeological excavations, in advance of building the luxury London Syon Park, a Waldorf Astoria Hotel, Museum of London archaeologists discovered a seemingly unassuming piece of corroded and encrusted metal. Through x-radiography and the expertise of the museum’s archaeological conservator, Liz Goodman, a rare and striking Roman copper-alloy mount was revealed.

The attractive find depicts the head of the gorgon Medusa. The mythological figure, whose glance turned an onlooker to stone, can be recognised by the wings sprouting from the top of her head, and the writhing snakes in her hair. The Romans used the image of Medusa as a powerful protective symbol, no doubt due to her legendary ability to petrify. The mount dates to the 2nd century AD and would have originally been attached to a wooden object, most likely a chest or casket, where it was undoubtedly intended to avert the Evil Eye and protect the precious contents.

Comparable portrayals of Medusa are found in Continental Europe and North Africa but very few examples have been found in Britain, in part due to their perishable nature. This object, with its classical symbolism, sheds light on the beliefs and superstitions of those either living near to the Roman capital or passing through on their way to bustling Londinium.

Museum of London Archaeology conservator, Liz Goodman, said: “When I started to clean the Medusa head I had no idea what lay underneath. As I gradually removed the soil and corrosion I was amazed at the beautiful object beneath. Uncovering treasures like this is the most exciting part of my job.”

Museum of London Archaeology Roman finds specialist, Angela Wardle, said: “This is one of the most attractive and interesting objects to have passed through my hands in over 20 years of working in London. It demonstrates both the sophistication and excellent workmanship of many of the artefacts used in the period, and even more importantly, affords a glimpse into people's minds.”

General Manager at the new London Syon Park, A Waldorf Astoria Hotel, Dale MacPhee, said: "Yet another rare and wonderful find only goes to demonstrate the rich and colourful heritage London Syon Park location holds – a completely unique location.”

Archaeological excavation of the site took place in 2008, unearthing an entire Roman landscape. To read more, see previous blog.

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