Object Three: Roman intaglio

Roman intaglio spotted on the Thames foreshore, November 2016
Roman intaglio spotted on the Thames foreshore, November 2016

Typically, a little drizzle doesn’t dampen my curiosity when the sea has arranged a fresh smattering of objects along the tideline. However, on a cold November day in Central London, I was soaked. Pelted by unrelenting, deliberate raindrops I began to question what I was doing, not just on the Thames foreshore, but with my life. Above me at street level, my peers hurried to their comfortable offices in smart suits and dry shoes. Scavenging the remains of lives once lived, like a twenty first century descendent of Albert Steptoe, even the ends of my hair had not escaped the silt as I slid and squelched my way along the shore.

Luckily, this vanity was soon overtaken by a passion for seeking small things forgotten. I picked over shards of broken plates, haunted by their ghosts of mealtime conversations around dinner tables long since cleared. Before long I was consumed by the many stories that had come to rest on the shore and no longer noticed the rain.

I didn’t spot it straight away. Beneath Blackfriars Bridge I found myself kneeling down for a closer look at an unusual piece of metal which had caught my attention. Next to it, about the size of a fingernail, I could hardly believe the intricate detail of what I had found – a stone which had been carved with a lady’s likeness; her clothes and hairstyle stereotypically Roman.

I had found a red jasper intaglio – a small oval stone often mounted on a ring and incised with a design. As well as being decorative, Roman intaglios had a practical use. When pressed into wax to form a seal, the resulting impression was an identifying mark. Typically these carvings represented the author of the document, and their image became a means of authenticating the sender and establishing their reputation in social circles.

I lifted it from the silt and surmised that this delicate incised stone must have experienced thousands of low tides on the Thames foreshore, quietly waiting to be spotted. I was looking at the image of a lady who in all probability had lived in London, just as I once had. Studying her, it occurred to me that I could be the first person in thousands of years to be considering her tiny portrait.

The intaglio was perhaps used to seal correspondence such as invitations, news and personal letters. This desire to project an image of ourselves to those in our social circle is as pertinent as ever, as in that moment I did what anyone living in the twenty first century would do – I hurriedly uploaded a few images to Twitter. I was sharing news of the find amongst my social circle, published alongside my own image. Were these two activities some twenty centuries apart really so different?

Once the sun finally emerged and my hair began to dry, I decided against a selfie on the foreshore. I was thankful that the mudlarking version of myself would not be captured as a permanent reminder of my ridiculously dishevelled appearance that day. Did the Roman lady ever hope her image would succeed her, long after her death? I felt a direct link to an unknown woman which laid bare my own mortality; I wondered whether some 2000 years hence, would anyone consider my place in the world?

Perhaps it was time for a new profile picture.