Abbey Museum mystery Lion Sculpure detail

A Mystery Lion Sculpture – Calling all Super History Sleuths for help?

What Am I? Identify a mystery Lion Sculpture and win a family pass to the Medieval Festival

Like many museums, the Abbey Museum has a number of interesting and somewhat quirky artefacts that have never been identified. One of these is an amazing lifelike sculpture, probably of a lion. The lion sculpture was catalogued as a medieval aquamanile, by JSM Ward, who first acquired it for the Abbey Folk Park, New Barnet, England back in the 1930s, reputedly from London. If you are not familiar with the term, an aquamanile is a water container or ewer, frequently in the form of a mammal or bird and used in medieval times at table for washing hands, a most necessary courtesy before eating. However, our senior curator is certain it is not an aquamanile, as it is slipware painted and would not hold water. Because of its shape, Ward mistakenly thought it was an aquamanile which has a similar shape.

So for the Collection Management Team the big questions are:

  • If not an aquamanile then what is it?
  • Where is it from?
  • What is its date?
  • What was it used for?
Mystery Lion Sculpture part of the Abbey Museum collection

Mystery Lion Sculpture part of the Abbey Museum collection

The Mystery Lion Sculpture. What we know:

What we can tell you is:

  • It is made of earthenware clay
  • It has no glaze, but has a reddish painted slip
  • It definitely represents a lion like figure or at least a feline. Black pigment seems to suggest a mane.
  • It is about 160 mm high and 160 mm long
  • It is hollow with apertures at the mouth but no filling spout. Most clay sculptures of this size would be hollow in order to fire them safely.
  • The tail once curled over the back and may have been a handle or just pure decoration.
back of mystery Lion Sculpture in the Abbey Museum Collection

Mystery Lion Sculpture (back)

According to the British Museum it is NOT from medieval London. In fact, photos were circulated around the institution back in the 1980s (before internet, of course) and the comments we had back was that it is probably not South American, probably not Chinese or South East Asian. Probably not ancient Middle East either. (We are fast running out of global origins at this rate!).

So what could it be? Where did it come from? We would like your help to identify this most remarkable but unidentified object. Sadly it sits hidden away in a cupboard and cannot go on display until we know more about it. Have you seen anything similar at another museum when travelling overseas? Have you come across a photo of a similar object in a book or in the internet?? Any leads you can send our way would be most appreciated. We are even offering an incentive… yes… for the first person to correctly identify the provenance and age of the pottery figure, and providing the necessary documentation, we will give you a weekend family pass to our annual Medieval Festival. We realise this may only be an incentive to our Australian Super Sleuths, but it is on offer to all and, who knows, you might be visiting Down Under one July and be able to attend our festival and visit our Museum to see the mystery lion in person.

If you uncover any information please contact the Museum at