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Exhibit of the Week: Painted Roman plaster, Malton Museum

Example of painted Roman plaster.
Example of painted Roman plaster.

Excavations in 1949-1952 of the Roman Town House in 
Orchard Fields were carried out by Mr (later Rev) Derek Smith and uncovered an impressive building of the 4th century AD.

A remarkable feature was a large reception room with extensive painted plaster on three walls and the remnants of a fine mosaic.

Some of the best of the painted plaster was held at Durham University and was studied by Rev Smith in the 1990s. Much more plaster was held in Malton, and the two groups have now been reunited in the stores of the Malton Museum.

In 2009, Malton Museum produced a small publication called Roman Malton, in which the image on the cover shows the restored ‘Malton Goddess’, as she has been dubbed.

Inside the publication there is a male figure ‘with the head surrounded by a halo of light and carrying a sceptre, perhaps representing Jupiter’.

Rev Smith’s careful study of these pieces concluded the female figure had a ‘impressionistic’ face with a distinctive white nimbus or halo around her head.

In the fourth century, to which this plaster is ascribed, nimbed female figures are quite common.

His first thought was that it had a Christian significance but he later discounted this interpretation. Interestingly, Malton has produced a large number of painted female face pots from this same 4th century period, could there be a connection between these and the ‘female-with-nimbus’ wall painting?

Two drawings from the booklet show a female figure as excavated with little more than one eye and half a nose visible on the plaster.

The nimbus surrounding her head is only partially visible but is the most significant element, if she is to be identified as a deity.

In the drawing of the male figure there is even less visible with only half of his left eye and part of a stave in evidence. Recent photography of the hundreds of pieces of plaster in the Museum’s collection has revealed a further two whole faces and single eyes from two more faces.

The newly noted faces have both got two eyes, both have noses and mouths and distinctive features.

They are however painted in two quite different styles, both of which are different in style from the male and female figures although the pigments used seem to be closely related.

Given the mass of material what other figures might it be possible to reconstruct?

Rev Smith suggests that the artists who painted these frescos could have been the same as those who undertook the paintings in the refurbished principia (headquarters building) of the legionary fortress in York.

l Malton Museum is opening a new bookable community resource space, this will feature a selection of books on Roman Malton.

The museum re-opens on March 31, Thursday-Saturday, 10am-4pm.

Entry is free.