A great visit to Silchester yesterday, organised for journalists covering The Eagle film … I saw for the first time the Silchester Eagle, in the museum in nearby Reading. It was smaller than I imagined. It was the artefact that, with the mystery of the disappearance of the ninth legion from military records, stimulated Rosemary Sutcliff to imagine her bestselling The Eagle of the Ninth historical novel. The cast bronze figure of an eagle was found in the basilica of the Roman town of Calleva (which features in the novel), near Silchester, on the 9th October 1866 during excavations by Rev. J.G.Joyce. The original wings are missing but it is ‘clear’, to archaeologists at least, from the modeling of the feathers beneath the wings that they ‘must have been extended and raised’. The eagle has been described as ‘by far the most superbly naturalistic rendering of any bird or beast as yet yielded by Roman Britain’.
I learned yesterday from a brief talk by the museum curator that the eagle was repaired at some point in its Roman lifetime, when new wings and probably new feet were fitted. Later it lost its replacement wings and its replacement feet were also damaged. To (some, indeed I am told most) specialists the curve of the underside of the feet suggests that the eagle’s claws once grasped the surface of a globe, also now missing. It was ‘probably held in the hand of a statue of an emperor or a god.’ Apparently the curve of the claws, as well as the imputed shape of the wings, are not compatible with the conventionally understood requirements of a military standard eagle.
So it is that the museum, alongside what is now conventional wisdom, asserts that ‘the eagle is not a legionary eagle’ although it notes that the eagle ‘was immortalised as such by Rosemary Sutcliff in her children’s books The Eagle of the Ninth and The Silver Branch’.
But perhaps I will cling to this ‘interpretation’ or at least imagining: the eagle is from the standard of the ninth; it was returned and buried in Calleva as imagined by Rosemary Sutcliff; and at some point it was re-crafted with the new wings and changed feet that archaeologists discern, made suitable then to sit on a globe … And it is the only thing to survive not melted down because people knew what its origins were …. And of course it doesn’t actually matter for the story which is wonderful whatever the ‘actual’ course of events. It was very affecting to see the artefact and to think of it from Roman times, whatever its exact provenance.