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Teen finds ancient Roman head in trash pit

Dr David Petts
Dr. David Petts of Durham University with a 1800-year-old carved head found in an ancient trash pile. A first-year archaeology student at the university made the discovery. (courtesy Durham University)


A freshman archaeology student digging in an ancient pile of Roman trash in the U.K. discovered a tiny carved soapstone head of what is probably a Celtic military deity.

Alex Kirton is 19. "It was an incredible thing to find in a lump of soil in the middle of nowhere – I've never found anything remotely exciting as this," he said in a statement on the website of Durham University, where he is a student. 

Kirton told the Daily Mail it was his second-ever dig. Here's his recollection of the find in that newspaper:

‘My trowel touched something and as I pulled away the soil I realised I was looking at the back of a head. I could clearly to see the impression of the hair carved into it.

‘I knew I may have found something of interest and I called over my supervisor as I thought I ought to let someone know what I’d discovered.

‘He came over and between us we carefully cleared away the soil that was surrounding it until all of a sudden the head rolled out face up and was just lying there staring up at us.’

The trash pile is at the site of a likely former bath house near Bishop Auckland in northeastern England. Researchers say the head, which probably dates to the 2nd or 3rd century A.D., looks similar to another soapstone one discovered 30 kilometres away near Benwell.

The Benwell head was identified in an inscription as Antenociticus, who was probably a warrior deity associated with the Romans living on the frontier of the Empire in northern England. 

The site where Kirton's find was made is known as Binchester Roman Fort. The precise location of the head was probably once a bath house that fell out of use, so the carving was thrown into a pile of rubbish. 

David Petts, an archaeology lecturer at Durham, said that a Roman altar was found nearby two years ago. 

But the head also has puzzling African features, Petts said, but those could be accidental. If not, however, the head could have even greater significance.

Kate Allen is the Star's science and technology reporter. Find her on Twitter at @katecallen.


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