Complete Hermes statue found in ancient sewer

Archaeologists excavating a Roman sewer at the ancient site of Heraclea Sintica near Petrich, southwestern Bulgaria, have discovered a large marble statue of Hermes. The statue is larger than life-sized at 6.8 feet high and is in exceptional condition, almost complete with only the hands missing. It is the only complete Roman statue ever found in Heraclea Sintica, and excavation leader Dr. Lyudmil Vagalinski believes it may well be the best-preserved Roman statue in all of Bulgaria.

The sculpture is still partially encased in soil — its left side with the chlamys (cloak) draped over the shoulder has not been fully excavated — but it is already evident that this was the work of a master. It is carved from a single block of marble and its style dates it to the 2nd century A.D. The size, contrapposto posture, the chlamys, and the tree trunk support next to his left leg are almost identical to the Atalante Hermes, a marble statue found in central Greece that is a 2nd century copy of a 4th century B.C. original that is believed to have been created by Lysippos, one of the three greatest sculptors of Classical Greece. The Atalante Hermes is missing the caduceus that would have originally been held in his left hand. Fingers crossed that when the Heraclea Sintica Hermes fully emerges from the soil, the caduceus will still be there.

The statue was found inside the Cloaca Maxima, the ancient city’s main sewer. The land above this section of the sewer is privately owned, so the city doesn’t have the power to conserve and restore the site as it would with municipal property. Archaeologists are doing what they can to keep erosion from causing irreparable damage to the ancient structures. This time they were sweeping the walls to assess their condition when they exposed a patch of marble. As they continued to clean towards the wall, they uncovered the full statue.

It was found lying on its side facing the sewer wall, so it must have been carefully placed there before being covered with dirt. Dr. Vagalinski suspects the townspeople buried the statue after the earthquake that damaged much of the city in 388 A.D. It was this protective burial that preserved the statue, alone among its many brethren, for 1700 years.

Christianity was the majority religion by this point, and while Emperor Theodosius I was fairly moderate in his approach to paganism even as he declared Christianity the official and only state religion, many of his administrators and subjects were virulently anti-pagan. Temples were destroyed and statues toppled. That is why most of the Roman statues found in Bulgaria are headless; they were deliberately decapitated as symbols of the destruction of the old religion. This statue somehow escaped the fate of its Olympian brothers and sisters, and its tender treatment suggests it was rescued by people who respected its religious significance or at least its cultural value.

Founded in the 4th century B.C. by Philip II of Macedon, Heraclea Sintica was the premier city of northeast Macedonia. It was conquered by the Roman Republic in the 2nd century B.C. It was an important city in the Imperial era, but rapidly declined at the 388 earthquake and another one in 425 A.D. that destroyed its infrastructure. By 500 A.D., the city was abandoned. Its identity was only rediscovered in 2002 when an inscription bearing its name was unearthed.

When the statue is fully excavated, it will be raised in a custom-built structure so that the heavy, delicate sculpture can be safely removed from the sewer. It will then be crated and lifted by crane for transport to the History Museum in Petrich where it will be conserved for eventual public display.