The ‘Roman Heads’ at the Netherbow in Edinburgh: a case of antiquarian wishful thinking in the 18th and 19th centuries
Carved stone, stone panel
Fountain Close; Netherbow Port; Edinburgh; Midlothian; Scotland; UK
Tudor, Elizabethan, Roman
A sculptured stone panel built into the wall of a house at the Fountain Close near the Netherbow Port of Edinburgh was first noted by Sir John Clerk of Penicuik in 1726 and published by Alexander Gordon that same year. The tablet features two heads, male and female, in profile and facing each other across an inscribed panel bearing a biblical inscription in lettering of Gothic form. The slab is today in the National Museum of Scotland where it is regarded as a work of the 16th century. But in the 18th century the antiquaries of Scotland were anxious to demonstrate that the carved heads were Roman and that they were those of the Emperor Septimius Severus and his consort Julia Domna. The awkwardness of the Gothic text between was simply, and literally, omitted from the engraved record of the stone. The ‘Roman’ view was adhered to into modern times. The case of the sculptured slab stands representative of antiquarian attitudes to the remains of the past across three centuries. The work of many writers of scholarly and popular literature is adduced on both sides of the argument, and derivatives of the portrait heads incorporated in the decoration of Sir Walter Scott’s Abbotsford are discussed.