Modern 26 treasures have a provenance. We know when, where, by whom, for whom, with what, (and, occasionally, at what cost) they were made. We know where they have been, since first they were created. We can trace their history. We can tell their story.
For my treasure – the Cramond Lioness – all these questions remain unanswered and are perhaps unanswerable: a mystery which heightens interest, and allows many alternative stories to suggest themselves.
The undisputed facts are that it was pulled from the mud at the mouth of the River Almond after discovery by the Cramond ferryman, Rab Graham in 1997. It’s almost certainly Roman in origin, and a Roman fort stood at the site around the time of the building of the Antonine Wall some 18 centuries ago.
It’s a massive piece of work, carved from sandstone. A fearsome animal devours a remarkably calm bearded man, who is naked, exposing a muscular torso, and who may have his arms bound. A prisoner then, marked out for death, perhaps in the arena: execution as entertainment. Pour encourages les autres.
But who is he? What was his crime? Why does he go so blithely to his maker? An early Christian, martyred for his belief? A common criminal, glad his tortures are over at last? A rebellious general, convinced his cause will yet prevail?
The sandstone is probably British, and possibly local. Yet apart from Toblerone teeth, the lioness is terrifyingly naturalistic, as if the sculptor had surely seen such beasts close up, in the wild, or in the cages under the Coliseum. So his stone might be local - but sculptor and subject are not. Why did he come to Britain? Why to this, the Northernmost frontier of the Roman Empire? Was he exiled here? To serve a military master, with decorations for his tomb? And was this indeed its purpose, as the snakes curling over the plinth are said to imply?
The story of its discovery bears telling. Although two million tides had ebbed and flooded over its head since Roman days, winter storms in 1996 scoured the concealing and protective silt away, to expose the lioness’ face at low spring tides. Positioned, as it was, below the quayside steps, Mr Graham thought it first a rock which might damage his boat, and then, as its carved nature emerged, a possible garden ornament for his Forth-side lawn. But when he set to digging it out, he soon saw it was something greatly more substantial, and reported his find. Careful excavation, removal, cleaning and preservation followed, until now it crouches, menacing and powerful, in the NMS.
It is remarkable that the building of the Cramond quay did not lead to its earlier discovery, to damage, or to encasement in concrete: but how it came to be there in the first place is to my mind the most interesting question of all. I picture the Picts, exploring the fort after the Romans have finally abandoned it and headed south to begin their long slow implosion of Empire. They pick over the empty buildings for anything of value or utility; but finding little, their anger at the departed occupiers rises. The start to break things, beginning with the small and fragile: but this is not enough to mark liberation or victory, so they look around, they look up, for something bigger, something solid, something symbolic. And seeing this enormous sculpture of cruelty imposed as both punishment and entertainment, they know what they must do. They smash down supporting walls, till the lioness crashes to earth, breaking its plinth. They drag it to the water’s edge; and they hurl it in, where it vanishes from view as completely as Roman rule has vanished from their land.