PEEP INTO THE PAST: Remarkable Roman frog is our ‘Object of the Year’

Romano British frog on display at West Stow Anglo Saxon Village ANL-140715-114900001
Romano British frog on display at West Stow Anglo Saxon Village ANL-140715-114900001
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History can sometimes spring to life in unexpected ways – as the arrival at West Stow of this Roman figurine of a frog, found at Wixoe and on loan from Suffolk County Council Archaeological Services, demonstrates.

The frog is copper alloy; small – though not indeed perfectly formed, since it has only four ‘fingers’ instead of the five which it should have (if it is a common frog, Rana temporaria). Nevertheless, it represents a high point in terms of the workmanship which went into producing it; the modelling of the figurine has a fluid realism which is exceptional in Romano-British work of this period. The subject itself is also highly unusual: representations of frogs were not common in the Roman world, and only a few survive. Nothing comparable has been excavated in Britain, and we have to go to Spain or southern France to find anything like it.

So it is both intriguing and frustrating that we can’t be sure what, back in the second century, the frog was made for: it is free standing and small enough to be easily portable, which suggests that it may have been a good luck charm of some kind. Frogs are richly symbolic: they were associated with fertility in the Graeco-Roman world and they have links with transformation, the transition from one phase of life to another. Other suggestions include use as a child’s toy or as a charm to avert evil. Or perhaps all of these; such artefacts could be multi functional. Patterns of wear on the underside indicate that it was frequently moved and set down in different locations, so clearly it was a much travelled and, for someone, much treasured, object.

Whoever that person was, and whatever purpose this little figurine served, it testifies to one thing which remains constant: the importance that people attached, then as now, to observing the life of the world around them and capturing it in artistic form. The fact that they were ready to put so much skill and effort into the recreation of such a small piece of that world, and captured it so successfully, tells us much about them; it brings them closer to us than any monumental sculpture could. Those missing fingers apart, this little frog is so beautifully observed, that we almost expect it to spring into action at any moment. As indeed, in a way, it does. It jumps out at us; out of the past and into our present, a reminder that it is the small, commonplace things which go to make up the texture of daily living; which bring the past to life, and which show that people – as well as frogs – in Britain two thousand years ago were not after all so very different.

The frog, which is our nomination for the Suffolk Museums’ ‘Object of the Year’ award, can be seen at West Stow Anglo Saxon Village.

You can vote for the frog on the Suffolk museums website during August and September: www.suffolkmuseums.org.uk