Unique 2,000-year-old discovery made by staff in lockdown at Northumberland’s Vindolanda Museum
The Roman author Pliny the Younger advised “kissing the hairy muzzle of a mouse” as a cure for the common cold. His fellow countrymen linked mice to the god Apollo, who could bring deadly plague upon them with his arrows.
So they might not have seen the funny side of a lifelike mouse made out of a strip of leather which has been newly discovered at the Roman fort of Vindolanda, south of Hadrian’s Wall, near Hexham, Northumberland.
About the size of a real rodent and lying unnoticed until now among thousands of leather offcuts held by the Vindolanda Museum since 1993, it looks as if it had been squashed flat after being run over – perhaps by a Roman cart.
Whether it was a practical joke or a child’s toy will never be known, but the find has excited archaeologists, who are unaware of anything comparable from the Roman world.
Barbara Birley, curator of the Vindolanda Museum, told the Observer: “It’s a fabulous little piece. We weren’t expecting to find something like that.”
If it was a practical joke, it was convincing, she said. “If you were working in a dark Roman room, because they didn’t have a huge amount of indoor lighting, you could definitely see it as a little mouse,” she said. “Especially because it’s not [like] Mickey Mouse with big ears. It looks very realistic.”
Vindolanda was built by the Roman army before Hadrian began constructing his 73-mile defensive barrier to guard the north-western frontier from invaders in AD122. It was an important garrison base, demolished and rebuilt repeatedly. It was there that archaeologists unearthed a cavalry barracks dating from AD105, finding extraordinary military and personal possessions left behind by soldiers.