Amber amulet in the shape of a gladiator’s helmet. Amber was an expensive imported material and was thought to have magical powers. The Roman author Pliny describes how amber amulets could protect children from illness and the symbolism of the gladiator may also be protective
A tiny amber amulet shaped like a gladiator’s helmet has been discovered in the Walbrook area by Museum of London Archaeology (MOLA).
Measuring just over 1cm across, the object was found amongst the remains of a demolished Roman building, together with large amounts of pottery and animal bone. It is hoped that analysis of these will narrow down a possible date for the artefact.
Its distinctive visor and high crest marks it out as depicting part of the equipment of a murmillo, who wore a large enclosing helmet with a grille covering the face. Armed with a short sword or gladius and a rectangular shield called a scutum, he was normally paired against a thraex (Thracian).
‘Gladiators were Roman superstars,’ said MOLA’s Angela Wardle. ‘We know of many souvenir objects depicting them, from glass cups bearing their names to lamps shaped like helmets. Amber was an expensive, rare material, however, so this is more likely to be some kind of talisman. There is a small hole through the top of the helmet’s crest which shows signs of wear, suggesting it was strung on a cord or fine wire — perhaps as a pendant or charm bracelet.’
Writing in his Natural History, in the 1st century AD, Pliny describes a range of benefits associated with amber, including healing, boosting fertility, and protecting children from illness.
‘The big question is who would have worn it,’ Angela said. ‘It’s a very delicate object, so perhaps it belonged to a woman or a child. There is some tradition of amber talismans being worn by babies.’
This article was published in CA 274