Cave canem: An animal incursion

In this latest post, our curator, Elisabeth Bletsoe, reveals more about one of her favourite items in the museum collections.


One of my favourite items in the museum is the tegula, or roof tile, featuring a dog’s pawprint which you can see in the Roman case in the Gibb Gallery on the ground floor. It is surprising how many similar tiles have been recovered by archaeologists, for example at Roman sites in   Leicester, York, the Isle of Wight, Canterbury  and London, not only showing dog prints but also those of cats, sheep, foxes, goats, birds and rodents (as well as human thumb and finger prints). When a 2000 year old tile bearing the pawprints of a dog was unveiled from a Corieltauvi town house from the Blackfriars area of Leicester one correspondent commented that it must have been difficult being a Roman tile manufacturer putting up with “constant animal incursions”. The clay tiles would have been left on the ground in the open air to partially dry before being hardened off in a kiln during which time they were vulnerable to the wanderings of various creatures. It is possible, however, that the accidental marking was not perceived as a nuisance.

In the summer, a visitor approached me after seeing our tile and remarked that in Sicily, where he had a villa, pieces of dried clay with pawprints were considered lucky and were hung up from the eaves as a charm. Saltillo tiles made from clay from the riverbeds in Coahuila, Mexico, that meet with similar accidents, are also considered good luck; these tiles are isolated and placed in very visible areas on the building. In Central France, pawprints are deliberately added to the tiles and it is apparently very unlucky not to have at least one in the roof. Pawprints can be considered good luck affirmations when included in charm bracelets and they are currently popular as tattoos, symbolising the way forward or perhaps the power, swiftness or strength of the chosen animal. Dog prints in particular symbolise fidelity and friendship. I like to think that we have our own little piece of luck contained in our museum case!



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