Photograph by Andy Chopping, EPA

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Museum of London conservator Luisa Duarte cleans a Roman-era limestone sculpture found recently in London.

Photograph by Andy Chopping, EPA

Finest Roman-British Sculpture Found in London

Exquisitely carved limestone sculpture adorned emperor's tomb 1,800 years ago.

Archaeologists excavating at the future site of a 16-story hotel in London have uncovered a 1,800-year-old statue of an eagle with a writhing serpent in its beak.

The statue was carved in limestone from the Cotswolds and stands two feet (65 centimeters) tall. The right wing has broken off from the body, but otherwise the sculpture is intact.

The foundations of a mausoleum were also found at the site. Experts have concluded that the sculpture once adorned the tomb of a Roman-era Londoner, likely a high-ranking official or a prosperous merchant.

Life in Londinium

At the time of the statue's carving, London was called Londinium. It was a walled city stretching along the Thames River, with a population of about 30,000. The mausoleum probably stood along a road leading out of the city, in a cemetery just outside the city walls.

Today the neighborhood is near the Tower of London.

Experts believe that the motif of the eagle devouring a serpent represents the triumph of good over evil. In Roman mythology, the eagle was a symbol of Jupiter, the chief god of the Roman pantheon.

The eagle was also thought to carry the soul of a deceased emperor to the heavens, making it an appropriate subject for a tomb ornament.

Historic Artwork

The sculpture is an extraordinary piece of art—the finest work by a Roman-British sculptor ever uncovered in London. In its day, it would have been a public statement of wealth and culture, a sign that even in this distant outpost the deceased was familiar with the customs and beliefs of people in Rome.

The statue's discovery was made during the final hours of an excavation that lasted several months. When archaeologists took the statue out of the ground, it was covered in mud.

Preliminary cleaning revealed carving so crisp that the artifact seemed at first to be a garden ornament from the Victorian era.

The Museum of London plans to exhibit this piece for the next six months. Continuing studies should reveal new insights into ancient cemeteries and tombs, and the life and death of Roman London's inhabitants.