MOL

London-Hidden since the Romans ruled Britain, this extraordinary sculpture was perfectly preserved for 1,900 years beneath a busy street. The carvings on the 26in high eagle are so crisp that when archaeologists unearthed it last month they feared it was a much later copy rather than an original Roman relic.

But experts at the Museum of London Archaeology confirmed that the sculpture from a high-ranking official’s tomb dates from the 1st or 2nd century AD, and is one of only two statues of its type in the world. The other was found in Jordan in 1937. Archaeologists also unearthed foundations of a mausoleum on the east London site and believe that the statue, dating from the first or second century AD and made from oolitic limestone from the Cotswolds, once adorned it.

The sculpture was pulled from the site on the Minories, a street in the City of London that is close to the Tower of London. It came out of the ground ‘covered in soil and unrecognisable’ in September in the last few hours of an excavation that had lasted several months. It is said to be in such good condition that archaeologists could not believe it is 1900 years old and were initially hesitant to announce the find until it had been seen by several experts. The sculpture features an eagle grasping a writhing serpent in its beak and is thought to symbolise the struggle of good (the eagle) against evil (the snake).

It also has details such as the forked tongue of the snake and the individual feathers of the eagle. The object, which is 65cm tall and 55cm wide, is thought to have been placed in an alcove at the mausoleum.The sculpture was probably chosen to please the god Jupiter and depict the triumph of good over death and evil, but it was also a way for wealthy families to show off and commemorate the dead, he said.

The eagle is a classically Roman symbol and this new find provides a fascinating new insight into the inhabitants of Roman London. ‘Funerary sculpture from the city is very rare and this example, perhaps from inside a mausoleum, is a particularly fine example which will help us to understand how the cemeteries and tombs that lined the roads out of the city were furnished and the beliefs of those buried there.’ ‘Here is a city of around 30,000 people where the mechanics of life are intertwined with the mythical.