A History Of Warrington In 10 1/2 Objects: Roman Actor’s Mask

Collections Officer Craig Sherwood presents the fourth episode in our new series of podcasts, looking at 10 (and a half) objects from Warrington Museum’s Collection that tell the history of the town.

Listen using the player below, or scroll down to read the full transcript.

Hello and welcome to episode 4 of a History of Warrington in 10 and a Half Objects. I’m Craig Sherwood, Collections Officer at Warrington Museum & Art Gallery.

It is sometime between the 1st and 2nd century AD and the potter in what is now Warrington shapes the lump of local clay and then cuts it in half length-ways. The potter then pushes out the curves of the clay from the underside with his fingers to form a face. Finally, they then take up a sharp knife to cut out the eyes, nostrils, and mouth. When the potter is satisfied with the resulting features, they carry the resulting mask over to the kiln, unaware that this is a face that people will still be looking at around 1,800 years later.

Object Number 4, the Roman Actor’s Mask, made of Warrington clay, between 1,900 and 1,800 years old, found in Stockton Heath, Warrington.

For this episode I am going to be talking about a mask. Now, given that we have all become used to wearing masks over the past year there is an obvious irony in picking a mask for the fourth object in our list but psychologically speaking I have always found masks interesting. By covering all or part of our features a mask can conceal our identity or at least part of our emotional expression while releasing another. The anonymity of a mask carries power and wearing a mask can feel like trying out a different role with different expectations. Masks can also create mystery, and this is especially true in this case as we discuss a mask that was discovered 150 years ago but has yet to give up many of its secrets.

I am standing in front of the mask now and it is made of a red earthenware resembling terracotta. It was obviously discovered in pieces and has been reconstructed later. Part of the right eye and eyebrow are missing and the expression in the mouth is somewhere between neutral and downcast. There are holes at the bottom corners, presumably made to tie the mask on.

The mask was discovered in 1869 by the antiquarian James Kendrick near St Thomas Church in Stockton Heath near Warrington. Kendrick described it as “the rarest and most precious object that excavations at Stockton Heath have offered” and even though similar masks have been found in the UK and Europe in the intervening decades it still remains highly unusual.

Based on analysis of the clay we know that this mask was made in Warrington during the Roman period. Around 2,000 years ago the Warrington area, like most of the rest of Britain, became part of the Roman Empire. In previous episodes of this podcast, I’ve talked about how important the nearby crossing over the River Mersey was to the people of the Stone and Bronze Age and this continued to be the case during the Roman period. Some archaeologists have argued that there was a Roman Military Fort at Warrington and others that there was a Roman port, but the truth is that no one really knows. We do know that from around 1,900 years to around 1,700 years ago there was a major centre of Industry here.

Of course, I am saying “here in Warrington” but during Roman Britain the town of Warrington was merely the gleam in the eye of the distant ancestor of an urban planner. There was certainly a Roman settlement here, around 1 and a half miles south of the present town centre, but we do not even know what it was called. Some historians have suggested the name Veratinum as this is mentioned in a Roman list of placenames in the area, but there is little evidence either way. Most people call the site of the Roman settlement ‘Wilderspool’ because that is the area of modern Warrington where most of the finds have been found.

So, why did the Romans create a settlement at Warrington?  Well, firstly it is worth pointing out again that this was an easy place for people to cross the River Mersey. Secondly the settlement was also in a place where lots of Roman roads crossed going to other Roman settlements such as Chester, Manchester, Middlewich and Northwich. As a result, many groups of Roman soldiers had to pass through here on their way to other places in Britain and it was a good place to stop and get things – a bit like a motorway service station although I very much doubt the legionaries were interested in picking up an overpriced cold sausage roll and a packet of wine gums.

The objects made in the workshops at Warrington could be easily traded by road or by river, for instance the local orange clay which was used to make this mask was also turned into pottery vessels and distributed across the Empire. Similarly, it was an easy place to receive the raw materials needed to make things and ironmaking was an important industry here too, as evidenced by the number of Roman furnaces that have been discovered. There is also some evidence for woodworking, copperworking, jewellery making, lead working and glass making in the Roman settlement all of which indicates that even then the Warrington area was known for industry. It was obviously a successful settlement as amongst the locally produced finds were discovered amphora from the Mediterranean that would have been used to transport oil, wine or fish sauce as well as pottery from Oxfordshire and Gaul.

Map showing where mortaria made in Wilderspool have been found in the UK.

So, we know that this mask was made here, and we know it is Roman but what more can we say about it?

I have referred to this object as the actor’s mask throughout this episode but although it certainly does date from the Roman period this is not the name it was given when discovered. It was found by local historian Doctor Kendrick in 1869 and he dubbed it the ‘Persona Tragica’, which is a latin phrase meaning ‘Tragic Mask’. Later curators, possibly wishing to avoid putting schoolchildren off with dreary old Latin terms, have dubbed it the ‘Roman Actor’s Mask’ and that is how we refer to it today.

Both names come from the resemblance that the mask bears to one of the traditional pair of masks found in classical theatre. If you have ever been to the theatre, you will have seen representations of these classical masks – one laughing and one groaning with despair – pictured over stages, above doorways, on the back of programmes and you can even occasionally see them on the tombstones of actors or comedians indicating their profession in life. These masks are occasionally referred to as ‘Sock and Buskin’ – two terms that come from Greek theatre where actors playing a comic role would wear only socks upon their feet while actors playing tragic roles would wear a kind of boot known as a buskin.

Comedy and Tragedy masks known as “Sock and Buskin”

The Romans called these masks persona, a word that comes from the Latin word personare meaning to resonate or to carry the voice. In Roman theatre the audience sat a long way from the stage and so the actors wore these false facemasks with exaggerated expressions to show if the character they were playing were happy or sad, tired or scared.  The huge gaping mouths on these masks, which became more exaggerated over time, were intended to carry the actor’s voice as far as possible into the stands. Masks allowed the actors to play multiple parts and roles and were even colour coded – brown for men and white for women.

Mosaic showing theatrical masks of Tragedy and Comedy. Roman artwork, 2nd century CE, From the Baths of Decius on the Aventine Hill, Rome.

As a sidebar to this discussion of theatrical masks in terms of Roman Theatre we actually know more about Roman Comedies than tragedies. Most comedies that have survived to the present day are based on Greek originals and are the work of two playwrights – Titus Maccius Plautus and the somewhat less exotically named Terence. Meanwhile the smaller number of Roman tragedies that survive are either the work of an anonymous playwright or the Roman philosopher Seneca. As a sidebar to this sidebar the playwright Seneca’s commitment to tragedy was so strong that when he was accused of treason by the Emperor Nero he is supposed to have slit his wrists, poisoned himself and then suffocated himself to death with the steam of a hot bath. Never one for half measures our Seneca he even left his family a mask as a symbol of his life.

Returning to our Roman Actor’s Mask there are obviously some problems. Firstly, Roman theatre masks were often made from cheap materials such as linen or cork and covered the entire, head, including the hair. To wear something like our ceramic Roman Actor’s mask an actor would have needed to tie it over the face by leather thongs which would have needed to be hidden by a wig. It would certainly have been very heavy and uncomfortable to wear for any length of time.

Secondly no one has found any evidence of a Roman theatre in Warrington. That does not mean that there was not one here – it may have been obliterated by newer buildings along with many other evidence a long time ago – but a theatre in a largely industrial setting such as Wilderpool would be relatively unusual.

Thirdly the antiquarian Dr Kendrick who found the mask named it a persona tragica but even a casual glance can tell you it is not particularly tragic and if anything, the features and the shape of the mouth is neutral rather than expressing anything like fear, sadness or anger.

None of these factors on their own mean that this was not the mask of a Roman Actor but they do shed some doubts on the true purpose of the mask. So if this is not, as we’ve been assuming for a century and a half, an actor’s mask from Roman Britain then what exactly is it?

Well, for anyone who has listened to previous episodes of this podcast and was wondering when the Archaeologist’s get out of jail free phrase ‘ritual purposes’ was going to make an appearance – your wait is over as one of the options is that the mask might also have been used to decorate the outside of a building, a temple perhaps, or tied onto a long vanished statue for – wait for it – ritual purposes. There is certainly evidence of the worship of Minerva and Jupiter at Wilderspool and so it may simply be a crude representation of a god or hero.

Graph illustrating my increasing use of variations on the term “ritual use” in this podcast

Another possibility is that the mask was hung up in a public place to show that a performance was about to take place. This might explain the lack of a theatre in Roman Warrington with performances given in other temporary locations on a rather ad hoc basis.

A final tantalising possibility brings us back full circle to the idea of theatrical masks. As I said earlier most Roman theatrical masks were made from cheap materials and this ceramic mask may have been used as a mould to shape stiffened fabrics such as linen or leather into the contours of a human face. Maybe the Roman Actor’s Mask was not a mask in of itself but a way of producing other masks which, because cloth and leather deteriorate much faster than pottery, are now lost to us forever.

In the end I would argue that it does not really matter what the Roman actor’s mask was used for. It is, instead, a visual representation of the people of a now vanished Roman settlement whose lives we are only just beginning to understand. Made of local clay and shaped by the hands of a local potter it is the perhaps first face we can put on Warrington’s ancient past … and if we look into its eyes and we learn more about ourselves than we do about the person behind the mask – isn’t that always what masks were for?

For our next object I am staying with leisure, but we are leaving Roman Britain behind. We will be looking at a pair of gaming pieces and finding out why games in Anglo-Saxon Britain were a very serious business.

For more about the Roman Actor’s Mask and other items at the museum please visit our website at wmag.culturewarrington.org. The music in this episode is Alone in the Museum by Edwin Montgomery, used here under an Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives International License.