An 1,800-year-old figurine is among the latest discoveries uncovered by our team of archaeologists investigating the King’s Quarter area of Gloucester, which is being developed by Gloucester City Council and Reef Group.
Standing 17cm-high, the pipeclay figurine dates to the first or second century AD and depicts Venus, the Roman goddess of love. The figurine is almost complete apart from some damage to the base and feet. Venus is shown in her typical pose, standing with a garment held at her left side and her right arm raised to hold a tress of hair.
The statuette was excavated alongside evidence of the city’s ancient Roman heritage, including the stone foundations of a number of buildings that may have formed part of a large suburb outside the Roman city walls.
Roman pipeclay objects were made in Gaul and the Rhine-Moselle region, mainly in the late 1st and 2nd centuries AD. They are known widely from across the western provinces, from Britain, France, Belgium, the Netherlands and Switzerland. Classical religious figures, particularly female deities, are the usual subject, with Venus the most widely known, though animal, human and other forms are also known. The objects were made in a two-part clay or plaster mould and fired in kiln at 900-1000°C. Examples of moulds, including of Venus, are known from the Allier Valley in central France.
Religious figurines were probably used in daily observances within household shrines. The focus on female deities may suggest that use was mainly by women. The classical Venus was the embodiment of love and sexuality, her ‘functions’ also encompassing beauty, fertility, prosperity and victory. Some early studies suggested an alternative native ‘Celtic’ attribution for the ‘Venus’ figurines, possibly relating to a water-related cult. For this reason, such figurines have been referred to as ‘pseudo Venus’ in the past.
The first comprehensive study of pipeclay figurines was by Rouvier-Jeanlin in 1972. This established the typological classification of Venus figurines across nine types which has been used ever since. Classification is based largely on the manner in which the garment at the lower left side of the figurine is held. The Gloucester example is a Type 2, where the garment is held by the fingertips, and which is the most commonly identified of the Venus types.
The Gloucester figurine is unusually complete, the large majority of examples being broken – some probably deliberately. There is some evidence for use of broken body parts as religious ex votos as part of healing or magical rituals.