The macabre bronze handle may have mirrored a real-life event, meaning it was likely “created to mark a significant occasion, an episode in which captives [were] killed in the arena by lions,” study first author John Pearce, a senior lecturer of archaeology at King’s College London, told Live Science in an email.
The expertly crafted figurine depicted on the handle is “best interpreted as a scene of damnatio ad bestias,” a Latin phrase that describes the “killing of captives and criminals as punishment and spectacle,” the researchers wrote in the study.
Archaeologists found the key handle during an excavation in Leicester, England, in 2017, ahead of the construction of new hotels and shops at Grand Central Street, according to a video from the University of Leicester Archaeological Services. The team unearthed it under the floor of a large town house, which was built in the late second century, more than a century after the Romans invaded Britain in A.D. 43.
“As the first discovery of this kind, it illuminates the brutal character of Roman authority in this province” of Roman Britain, Pearce said in a statement. He and his colleagues spent the past few years cleaning and analyzing the key handle, publishing their findings online Aug. 9 in the journal Britannia.
The key was cut off the handle long ago (images of other Roman-era keys are shown here), but the nearly 5-inch-long (12 centimeters) handle gave archaeologists plenty to analyze. It weighs 11 ounces (304 grams) and captures the moment the lion sinks its teeth into the barbarian’s head. Many Romans held contempt for and even feared tribes outside the Roman Empire; they called these people barbarians, viewing them as “other” and “enemies of civilization,” the researchers wrote in the study. So, it’s no surprise that the barbarian’s wildness is accentuated in the figurine, with mane-like hair, a thick beard, bulging eyes and possibly a naked chest.