Author: Barbara Birley

Published: 30th June 2020

Venus figurine

This figurine on display at the Roman Army Museum was found just to the west of the fort site of Magna as part of a watching brief to lay the cycle path which runs parallel to the B8318 road. It was probably owned by one of the soldiers stationed at the fort or possibly a civilian.

It is a mould made pipeclay figurine of the goddess Venus dating to the second century AD. Produced in Central Gaul, this figurine shows Venus standing upright with her right arm raised touching her hair and her left hand by her side holding onto her garment by her fingertips. The way in which this Venus holds her garment helps finds specialist to know what type of Venus we have (it's a Type 2 for those that are interested). There are around 100 of this type of figurine currently known from Britain and it is the most common not only Venus but the most common type of pipeclay figurine from the province overall.  

Pipeclay figurines are usually made from a malleable kaolin-based clay containing little iron, giving it a whiter appearance. The body of this figurine, like most others, was made by pressing a thin layer of clay into either half of a two-piece mould and joining them securely together to create a hollow cast. After drying the shrunken cast could be removed from the mould and the separately moulded heads and small hemispherical bases added before any seams and blemishes were smoothed. Finished casts were kiln fired at a high temperature. Fired figurines were then sometimes painted using a range of coloured pigments. Pigments rarely survive in the ground but it is often possible to see the fingerprints of the people that made the figurines on the interior surfaces of broken examples.

The Carvoran figurine is broadly similar to a Venus figurine from the east hypocaust channel of Vindolanda’s Site 30 that was found sometime before 1972 and has been published a number of times. It is currently on display in Vindolanda Museum. These figurines are clearly from different moulds but may well have arrived in Britain around the same time. Like other finds along Hadrian’s Wall at sites like Corbridge and Housesteads, Venus figurines are not specifically associated with the military but are often found in vici or nearby settlements where there was a greater mix of civilians and families. They are often found broken at the neck and/or lower legs in pits, ditches and refuse deposits where they probably disposed of after they had been used as toys or, more likely, trinkets in household shrines and nearby temples where their links with fertility and protection were revered.

However, Matt Fittock has been conducting some recent experimental work on replicas suggests that breaking off their heads may well have been a more deliberate ritual practice. It has been suggested that they were part of frequent ritual and the finding of many broken pipeclay figurines could suggest that they were used in ex voto religious practice. Ex voto or a votive offering is the common practice of displaying or depositing objects in a sacred places for religious purposes. It was usually carried out in part to gain favour with supernatural forces and as Venus, the goddess of love and fertility is the most common figurine found it poses the question of was the owner looking for love.

Selection of Venus figurines from Vindolanda showing breakage. 

Special thanks to Matt for the identification and information on the Venus figurine.

Further reading

Pipeclay figurines by Matt Fittock- Data sheet 6

Fittock, M.G. (2015). “Broken Deities: The Pipeclay Figurines from Roman London”, Britannia, 46: 111–34, especially pp. 125-9 for fragmentation. 

Fittock, M.G. (in press). More than just love and sex. Venus figurines in Roman Britain, in R. Collins and T. Ivleva, (eds), Un-Roman Sex: Gender, Sexuality and Lovemaking in the Roman Provinces and Frontiers. Taylor Francis. 

For more about fragmentation specifically:
Fittock, M.G. (forthcoming). Off with their Heads! Broken Figurines and Religious Practice in Roman Britain, in L.A. Graña Nicolaou, T. Ivleva and B. Griffiths (eds), The Role of Experimentation in Roman Archaeology: Methods and Approaches to Testing Theoretical Hypotheses. Sheffield: Equinox.

Birley, R. 1973. Vindolanda-Chesterholm 1969-1972: Some Important Material from the Vicus. Archaeologia Aeliana (fifth series) 1, 111-122.

Birley, R. 1977. Vindolanda. A Roman frontier post on Hadrian's Wall. London, Thames and Hudson.

Jenkins, F. (1977). Clay Statuettes of the Roman Western Provinces. Unpublished PhD Thesis, University of Kent.