A Roman joke?

This little fellow (picture above, from the Guardian) was discovered at Vindolanda Roman fort, on Hadrian’s Wall, amongst a collection of discarded leather offcuts. Unlike the other bits and bobs, it was deliberately styled as a mouse – something the experts believe is quite unusual. Roman Britain would have been over-run with mice and they would probably have been seen as utter pests, getting into the granaries and chewing through the grain. So why make a model of one?

The article about the discovery, also from the Guardian, mentions two possibilities. Either it was a toy made for some wealthy Roman child to play with. Or it was a practical joke – something to leave lying about in a dark corner ready for one of the servants to find, perhaps, and shriek the place down. Which says something about the Roman sense of humour if it’s true!

There is also a third possibility – it could have been a votive offering to be left at the household altar, to appease the gods into warding off a destructive plague of mice. The Romans were very down-to-earth and often made votive models of parts of their body afflicted by illness, for very much the same reason. We saw a big collection of them in the Wellcome Galleries at the Science Museum in London a few years ago, with everything from heads to single toes.

We’ll probably never know what this particular mouse was for, but it must have been a lovely discovery for the Vindolanda museum staff to make in amongst all the scraps.


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