Beautiful enamelled cockerel found in Roman child’s grave

During excavations for St. James’s Place Wealth Management, at the former Bridges garage site in Cirencester, the striking figurine of a cockerel with intricate enamelled decoration was discovered. The elaborately decorated cockerel was found in a child’s grave and is thought to be Roman, probably from the 2nd century AD. It is made of a cast copper alloy (probably bronze), and stands approximately 125mm in height. The breast, wings, eyes and probably the ‘comb’ of the cockerel are beautifully inlaid with enamel, which now appears green and blue. There is a separate plate at the tail end which could be its fanned tail feathers, although it is difficult to tell at this stage. The cockerel also has its beak open as if crowing – could this be a message to one of the gods of the afterlife?

Roman cockerel - side view

Roman cockerel - face on

Cockerel - additional side view

Neil Holbrook, Chief Executive for Cotswold Archaeology commented: “The cockerel is the most spectacular find from more than 60 Roman burials excavated at this site. It was excavated from the grave of young child and was placed close to its head. Interestingly a very similar item was found in Cologne in Germany and it looks like they both could have come from the same workshop based in Britain.”

The Cologne cockerel has minor differences in the colour of the enamelling and is missing its tail, but there little doubt that both came from the same workshop and may well have been made by the same craftsman. Given Britain’s prominence in the production and export of decorative objects richly embellished with enamelling, it is clear that they were probably made somewhere here, possibly in the north of the province.

The cockerel appears to be a common artistic subject in the Roman world, it had religious significance to the Romans and is known to be connected with Mercury, the messenger to the gods. Significantly it was Mercury who was also responsible for conducting newly-deceased souls to the afterlife. It seems possible therefore, that the Cirencester cockerel may have been intended as an offering to Mercury to ensure that the child safely reached its destination.

The cockerel is awaiting specialist conservation to clean away the soil and stabilise the enamel. Hopefully after conservation, it will be on view to the general public at the Corinium Museum in Cirencester.

Other finds from this grave include a small pottery tettine or feeding bottle, which was unfortunately highly fragmented. This will also undergo conservation work.

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