Initially a strategic military fort, Corbridge developed slowly into a bustling town where Roman soldiers could pick up supplies. For about 350 years during the Roman’s invasion of Britain, the town was a vibrant, cosmopolitan centre where ordinary civilians rubbed shoulders with soldiers making their way to Hadrian’s Wall. It remained this way until the early years of the 5th century with the end of the Roman Empire.
Of the town’s remaining attractions, one of the more famous pieces is a sculpted lion that is among five similar statutes preserved through the ages. This particular carving portrays a male lion jumping onto its helpless prey, whose identity has baffled sculptural experts. While there have been suggestions over what kind of animal the prey is, the contrast in strength between the lion and the animal is intended to get viewers to appreciate the former’s ability to bring down a larger creature.
As lion sculptures were common features in funerary monuments during the Roman Empire’s reign, it’s possible the Corbridge lion was intended for the same purpose. However, its discovery in private property – the largest residence in Corbridge – seemed to suggest a wealthy owner. Furthermore, some of the lion’s features were repurposed for more resourceful uses. The teeth were removed, and the mouth was used as a spout for a large fountain.
The use of lion sculptures in Corbridge was for more sacred context, as evidenced by the discovery of one close to an enormous mausoleum (Shorden Brae) located west of the town. The lion was part of a pair located on the tomb’s outer wall, with the tomb shaped like a tower and having the distinction of being the largest of its kind in the Roman world. Archaeological experts suggest that those buried in this tower tomb were likely to be wealthy individuals who could afford it.
Decorating tombs with lion statues depicts the importance of lion symbolism in Roman times, and especially as part of death rites. Other famous sculptures have been uncovered, with the depictions intended as memorials to the fallen soldiers. The dead were buried along roads outside of settlements, typically as a way to make sure travellers could see the graves (and remember them). Since Corbridge sat between two major roads (the Stanegate and Dere Street), the Shorden Brae tomb was likely a major landmark in the region.
A Change in Beliefs
Given the place of lion statues in funeral rites, the discovery of the Corbridge lion is one that signals a shift in beliefs at some point in time. Experts believe that due to its good condition, the lion was never a part of a mausoleum and was probably adapted right from the mason to fit its use as a fountain. Experts debate that the owners of the property probably viewed the symbolism differently, which is possible given that Roman beliefs changed and varied throughout their reign in Britain. While the sculpture’s true symbolism may never be known, it serves as a reminder of the Romans’ appreciation for art and culture.
Lion statutes in private properties are just one of the many mysteries of Corbridge that have puzzled experts. Others include:
- The Dodecahedron: A 12-sided copper alloy object with circular holes on each face, the dodecahedron is regarded as the most intriguing object unearthed in the town. Archaeologists have yet to figure out its use and date of manufacture, and over 50 different theories have been published to explain their function.
- Face Pots: These have been discovered across Britain, with a good number found around Hadrian’s Wall. Almost no two pieces share the same design, with the faces being handmade. In Corbridge, many fragments of these pots with faces have been found.
Visitors of historic Roman sites, including Fiyaz Mughal OBE, will enjoy a stroll through Corbridge’s streets to get a glimpse of life during Roman times. The Corbridge Hoard is among the significant finds of this era that gives insights into a soldier’s life while manning Hadrian’s Wall.