Tuesday, December 6, 2011

A Face from the Past

All of the archaeological objects in our collections have been made, used, owned and finally lost by people and for nearly all of them we have no idea what the owner may have looked like. When we are working on these items we at best see in our minds eye a fuzzy human shape probably based on an illustration from a history book or a character from a TV series. So this is why every once in a while one our artefacts will stun and surprise us by showing us the face of a person from the past. The stone corbel of a man’s head found in St Mary’s Church, Bedford, is one such remarkable item.

Objects like this offer us a direct link between us, the viewer and the face the stone mason had in his mind when he carved the corbel. We can only assume that the stone mason working on the rough lump of stone modelled it on someone he knew or at the very least of a stylised mans face of his time.

The carving shows the face of a man with well manicured moustache, beard and eyebrows and with locks of curly hair neatly tucked behind his ears. His eyes are fully open and he stares directly out at us and faint traces of red pigment are still just visible on his cheeks, lips and nostrils.

The date of the stone is put at about 1160 AD.
Our corbel was discovered a few years ago during restoration work at St Mary’s Church when a small Anglo-Saxon window, which had been blocked up in the fourteenth century, was being unblocked. The stone head had been used along with other stone rubble to fill in the window.

The basic details of the stone corbel are that it is 24cm wide, is 30cm high and is 23cm deep and as we have recently had to pack it away to be moved off site we can all vouch that despite its’ relatively small size it is extremely heavy too!!

The stone type has been identified as Caen Stone, which is described as a light yellow coloured, fine grained Limestone which outcrops in the north western part of France near to the city of Caen. This type of stone is known to have been quarried in the Roman period and then later in the Norman period and sculptures made from this hard, high quality stone are associated with important religious buildings such as cathedrals and churches or secular buildings of high status such as castles.

Unfortunately as this stone had been reused with other rubble to fill in the window in the fourteenth century we have no way of knowing where it may have come from originally. All we can be certain of is that its shape shows that it would have been used as a corbel to support beams for either a roof or a ceiling and because it is carved and painted with obvious skill and craftsmanship the building it was made for was fairly high status.

Liz Pieksma
Keeper of Archaeology

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