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Ship’s figurehead
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This figurehead was discovered in 1934 and for a long time was widely thought to be from a Viking ship of the IX to XI centuries. A few doubts, however, were raised about the style, and in 1970 the Museum’s Research Laboratory undertook carbon-14 dating of the wood. The results left little doubt that the figurehead was carved much earlier than previously thought and did not come from Viking ship.

Although animal figureheads are popularly associated with Viking longships, they are found in much earlier illustrations of merchant and naval ships from the north-east regions of the Late Roman empire. This figurehead probably dates from around this period, and is from Belgium. Its frightening appearance, with gaping jaws and prominent teeth and eyes, was probably meant to be protective and not just ornamental. Journeys by ship were hazardous, and it was believed necessary to ward off the evil forces encountered at sea.

Ship’s figurehead

Provincial Roman or Germanic, from the River Schelde near Appels, Oost Vlaanderen, Belgium, IV-VI century AD.
Ht.149 cm.
Purchased with the assistance of the Art Fund and Christy Trust.

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