There is a multitude of stories about the Traprain Law hoard, and many of them are told by a book recently published by National Museums Scotland (see ‘Further reading’). We learn about the discovery of the hoard, the press and public interest, and the concern that the discovery would spark unauthorised digging by treasure hunters. The ownership of the hoard was happily settled by the ‘patriotic generosity’ of the landowner in donating it to the National Museum of Scotland, after which there followed much discussion about the techniques to be used to conserve the find – including whether and how to unfold those objects that had been deliberately bent and crushed.
How to pay for the work was another topic of debate, and with it the question of whether Brook & Son, the Edinburgh-based goldsmiths, should be given permission to take moulds of a few of the objects and be licensed to produce reproductions – some of which would be highly speculative because they would be based on vessel fragments. Then there was the question of study and display, and the publication of the first monograph in February 1923, a masterpiece of analysis by Alexander Curle, with its expensively produced photogravure plates.
Despite a waning of public interest after the Second World War, though, scholarly interest in the hoard continued and, in 2009 – 90 years on from the first discovery – a conference was held to consider one particular aspect: the implications of the fact that the artefacts had been cut up into smaller pieces. The initial conclusion, in 1923, was that the hoard represented ‘loot’, the accumulated treasure of piratical barbarians with no interest in the aesthetic value of the objects they had acquired. According to the 1923 monograph, and with Europe still recovering from the First World War, such a hoard was no doubt ‘connected with the Teutonic Migrations which overflowed the Rhine boundary at the commencement of the 5th century’. As an alternative to the ‘booty’ theory, others suggested that it consisted of the ‘capital of the prince of the fortress’, intended for melting down into silver bars to be used for exchange.
A breakthrough in understanding came in the form of a paper given to the 2009 conference by the late Kenneth Painter, a Classical archaeologist who suggested that the Traprain Law hoard – and similar hoards from other parts of the Roman Empire and beyond – had been cut into pieces that corresponded closely (but rarely precisely) with standard Roman weight units, rather than being chopped and sheared at random. This implied an underlying value system, with the pieces of silver cut into bullion and functioning like coinage. In all, the silver in the hoard weighed 71 Roman pounds, equivalent to 11,600 siliquae (weighing 2g each) – the most common form of silver coin circulating in late 4th- and early 5th-century Britain. Eric Birley sowed the seed of the idea that the hoard represented payment to the Votadini, the people traditionally associated with the Traprain Law hillfort, for services as peacekeepers in the border region north of Hadrian’s Wall. These ideas were all summarised in the conference volume that was published in 2013 (and which featured in CA 283 that same year).
This new volume adds a great deal more detail about the original form, decoration, and use of the vessels before they were turned into smaller pieces of silver, comparing the fragments in the hoard with similar vessels from across the Roman world, known both from the large number of intact tableware hoards that have been discovered over the last 100 years and the many similar hacksilver hoards – repositories of cut-up silver – that have been found over the same period.
Vestiges of vessels
The Traprain Law hoard consists of 327 individual fragments, from between 129 and 171 different items – the uncertainty about the precise number reflects the difficulty in deciding whether some fragments come from the same or a different artefact (whether the sidewall could be from the same vessel as the foot ring, for example).
The earliest objects date from the late 3rd century and the latest from the middle of the 5th century. The majority of the vessels belong to the period when beaded rims were in fashion, from the second quarter of the 4th to the first half of the 5th centuries, supplemented by later vessels with simpler rim forms and by the kind of very large (c.700mm) round platters that were popular in the 5th century. This wide chronological spectrum, with silver from several generations, makes the hoard unusual. Although comparable hoards contain ‘heirloom’ pieces, the majority of their contents typically cluster around a narrow date-range.
The authors suggest that, rather than being compiled at a single date from vessels that included a number of ‘antique’ pieces, the hoard was compiled over several generations and used like a savings account: pieces were removed and new ones added over an extended period of time. The latest pieces were added in the second quarter of the 5th century and then the burial spot seems to have been forgotten. That is suggested by the fact that there is evidence that silver-working, including the recycling of material, continued elsewhere at Traprain Law after this date.
In the absence of workshop stamps, it is all but impossible to say where the artefacts in the hoard had been made. Vessel styles and decorative and figural repertoires were widely shared across the Roman Empire. The vessels in the hoard are typical of the increasingly rich and lavish assemblages of silver used for serving and consuming food and drink in the Late Roman period by the well-travelled elite of the Roman world, who owned property in several different provinces. Unfortunately, chemical analysis of the silver has not yielded enough variation to pin the production down to a particular region or workshop, although the solder – the lead-tin alloy with a lower melting point than silver that was therefore used to join pieces of the precious metal together – consistently suggests a German (Eifel) or English (Pennine) source.
The different artefacts in the hoard represent a fairly random sample of the Late Roman silver circulating in the western Empire, but no other hoard offers such a wide range of vessel types. Most are either tableware – bowls, dishes and platters, and jugs for serving wine and water, but no drinking vessels (these would have been made of glass) – or objects used for personal hygiene – including fluted water basins, jugs, buckets, mirrors, and containers for perfumes and unguents.
Although some of the latter vessels could have multiple uses (the jugs, for example), vessels employed in bathing and toiletry rather than food can be identified from contemporary Roman wall paintings and written accounts, such as that of Clemens of Alexandria (c.AD 150-c.215), who, from a Christian perspective, accused wealthy women at the public baths of getting drunk while bathing and of putting on vulgar displays of their silver bathing accessories, which ‘show their wealth, with infinite ostentation, but above all their uncontrolled bad taste’. He concludes that they seem ‘unable to sweat without many accessories’.
Inscriptions and depictions
Twenty items have graffiti scratched into the surface of the vessel. These are assumed to be the names of the owners – typically they are abbreviated or consist of initials, and they are mostly common Latin names (for example, Amabilis and Emilius), non-diagnostic in terms of origin. Three are transliterations from Greek (for example, Talas = long-suffering) and one, consisting of the letters BRI, could be an abbreviation of the Celtic element ‘Brigo’. Most names are male, but there is one female owner: Victorina. Meanwhile, half the items have more than one owner’s mark, with some showing three and even four joint or successive owners.
One spoon has the superimposed Greek letters chi and rho, for the name of Christ, neatly incised into the base of the bowl, and a perforated strainer has another Chi-Rho in the centre of the bowl and the letters IESUSCHRISTUS around its rim. Another explicitly Christian reference is found around the neck of a small flask where the Chi-Rho cypher and the letters alpha and omega are accompanied by a punched inscription that can be read as ‘Eisia made this for Frymiacum’. Roger Tomlin argues that ‘for Frymiacum’ refers to a placename rather than a person, and he wonders whether this was a liturgical vessel made for a church, in which case the best candidate is Frumiacum (modern Fromy) in the Ardennes département of northern France.
One of the most remarkable objects in the hoard is an almost complete jug decorated with scriptural scenes: from the Old Testament, Adam and Eve with the serpent-entwined Tree of Knowledge and Moses striking water from a rock in the desert; and from the New Testament, the Adoration of the Magi and the Ascension. This too might have been a liturgical vessel, whereas the depictions of Hercules on one platter and Venus on another might well have served to stimulate literary and philosophical conversation over dinner.
Popular as a decorative figure in Late Antiquity on painted vases and in sculpture, Hercules was seen as a model human being, a hero who suffers and is put to the test, and who overcomes a series of obstacles, making him worthy of a place among the gods. Venus arising naked from the sea was an even more popular Late Antique theme, found in mosaics, on sarcophagi, and on silver vessels, such as the Proiecta Casket from the Esquiline Treasure. Similar in theme is the Nereid, or sea nymph, seated on a marine panther (with a feline head and a serpentine tail) on another vessel from the Traprain Law hoard, a fluted basin that is also decorated with dolphins, fish, and seashells. Representing beauty and harmony, the Nereid is an appropriate subject for a vessel made to hold water, but no doubt an erotic element could be introduced to the table talk based on these images.
Another remarkable jug, of which about half has survived, depicts the scene from the Odyssey when the eponymous wandering hero returns incognito, disguised as a beggar, to his own house and is recognised by his former nurse as she bathes his limbs, because of a scar above his knee, the result of a boar-hunt injury. Only the right foot of Odysseus has survived, but the other figures include the nurse, Eurykleia, kneeling before him, and Penelope, his wife, spinning and weaving a burial shroud which she unpicks every night as a trick to fend off her suitors, with whom she promises to engage only when she completes the cloth. The scene presents another opportunity for the discussion of such topics as marital fidelity and the fortitude and long-suffering of the hero confronted with the vicissitudes of life.
As a whole, the sample of images and motifs found in the hoard can be taken as a typical panorama of the silversmith’s repertoire and fashionable taste at the time. They include a pair of panther-shaped handles, the foot of a box in the shape of a griffin, and the handle of a large spoon in the shape of a dolphin. Further dolphins are used to form the foot of a strainer handle, and swans’ necks decorate another spoon. Fish appear on a heart- shaped dish and a spoon, a motif with multiple meanings: they could symbolise Christian affinity, but equally could indicate the use of these vessels for serving fish, as with the shallow bowl decorated with children fishing from a boat along with a wading bird catching an eel or snake, an octopus, and another fish. Finally, there are pastoral scenes (sheep, horses, dogs) and animal hunts, flowers, leaves, and human heads, all part of the standard repertoire of decorative motifs in Late Antiquity.
One small group of finds from the hoard is interesting for the light it throws on the Germanic influence on Late Roman belt equipment and personal ornament. These include two buckles and two chip-carved strap-ends that in the past have been seen as characteristically Germanic. It is argued in this volume that it is not necessary to look for associations with Germanic cultural groups, and that, while objects like these were clearly influenced by styles from this region, close parallels can be found throughout the Empire, from Gaul to Hungary and southern Russia, with northern Gaul considered to be the most likely source of the Traprain Law examples.
The finding of the Traprain Law treasure in a part of Europe that lay outside the frontiers of the Roman Empire raises questions about relations between the people of the Scottish Iron Age and those of the Roman world, and the role of Traprain Law itself. As Fraser Hunter, one of the editors of the new volume, points out, there are more Roman finds from this site than from all the other Iron Age sites in Scotland put together. The range and time-depth of this material is impressive, and the hoard is only a small part of the overall assemblage: from the late 1st century until the mid-5th, an impressive range of Roman goods – including pottery, high-quality glass, jet jewellery, brooches, coins, and metalwork – was reaching this site, with few evident chronological gaps.
Most Roman finds in Scotland date from the 1st and 2nd centuries and testify to Roman attempts to build links with people well beyond the conventional limits of the Empire. There is a further clustering of finds in the later 3rd and 4th centuries in south-eastern Scotland, from the Tweed to Fife, suggesting Roman attempts to create a buffer zone between Hadrian’s Wall and the developing problem of the Picts in north-eastern Scotland. Traprain Law probably served as a distribution centre for Roman imports during this period – one of several, along with Eildon Hill North and the Iron Age predecessors of the castles at Edinburgh, Roxburgh, and Dumbarton Rock. By the Late Roman period, Traprain Law was the only site with Roman finds in the local area, which suggests the strengthening of its role as a central place in relations with the Late Roman world.
Further evidence of this is the construction of a substantial new rampart at Traprain Law, with a stone base and turf superstructure, enclosing some 12 hectares of the hill. Inside, the site was intensively occupied, with small sub-rectangular buildings, again with stone foundations and turf walls. Further south, soldiers of the Late Roman frontier army were becoming embedded in the local setting, shifting in character from soldiers to warriors – local groups fighting for themselves rather than the emperor. The power dynamic between the Roman army and its neighbours was becoming more equal, and it is quite understandable that the soldiers on the Wall might have sought the additional support of the Traprain retinue to maintain a semblance of Romanitas.
The new volume has extended knowledge of the hacking process, supporting Kenneth Painter’s argument that hacking started in the Roman world at times of economic crisis, when prized vessels were converted into portable weights of bullion. The process can be tracked through successive phases of hacking, seen in varying shapes, weights, and toolmarks as they moved from the world of the Roman economic system to the world beyond, where silver was a raw material to be melted and reused. It seems clear the hoard did not come to Traprain in one go, but represents a century or more of wheelings and dealings.
The hoard can plausibly be seen as evidence of payment for mercenary services, but the relationship with the Roman world to the south was not only based on political dealings. We know that spear butts, pins, gaming pieces, terret rings, brooches, rings, and massive silver chains were all being produced at Traprain Law at this period, and the find spots indicate a widespread distribution of these objects around Britain in the 5th century. So goods manufactured in the north were heading south as well as southern silver heading north, with Traprain Law as the node in this network.
The Traprain Hoard has many unusual aspects, not least the fact of its survival at all. Silver, like glass, was easily recycled and little ends up in an archaeological context. The artefacts would probably have ended up in the melting pot had anyone retrieved them after burial. It was found in an unexceptional building, in a hole that had no sign of containing a chest or vessel, no lining to the burial pit, and no sign that this was a regular place of storage. There was nothing to indicate that it might have been a votive offering, and everyone agrees that it was probably buried rapidly for safekeeping and never retrieved. Like so many of the other hoards of hacksilver and of intact silver vessels – from Hoxne and Mildenhall in Britain to Vinkovci in Croatia – we can only speculate about what motivated their burial and what prevented their recovery, while being thankful that they did survive to give us such valuable insights into the past.
Fraser Hunter, Annemarie Kaufmann-Heinimann, and Kenneth Painter (eds) The Late Roman Silver Treasure from Traprain Law (National Museums Scotland, £89.99, ISBN 978-1910682234). Get 30% on the book from https://shop.nms.ac.uk using the code LRSCA.
All Images: National Museums Scotland, unless otherwise stated