This week: Roman silver

The Traprain Hoard, unearthed in 1919 at an Iron Age hillfort outside Edinburgh. Image: National Museums of Scotland.
The Traprain Hoard, unearthed in 1919 at an Iron Age hillfort outside Edinburgh. Image: National Museums of Scotland.

Back in 1919, when the spectacular Traprain Hoard was unearthed at an Iron Age hillfort outside Edinburgh, it must have been tempting to view this unmatched assemblage of Late Roman ‘hacksilver’ (silver items and objects which have deliberately been cut, chopped and crushed into fragments) simply as evidence of the barbarism that existed beyond the Empire’s edge.

After all, as some scholars suggested at the time, who other than a piratical barbarian fixated on ‘loot’ (and incapable of appreciating Classical artistry) could possibly countenance the destruction of so many exquisite Roman pieces, including fine examples of 3rd- to 5th-century silver tableware?

A century on, however, we can see that the hoard’s 327 battered and twisted fragments of silver are less random than they might appear. Having been carefully cut into pieces that corresponded closely with standard Roman weight units, it seems likely that they functioned more like bullion, perhaps to be used as diplomatic gifts, or as payment to local tribes for mercenary services.

As we discover this week on The Past, the Traprain Hoard – as with other similar finds of hacksilver across Europe – is therefore understood now not simply as barbarian booty, but as evidence of the complex relationship that developed over time between the Roman world and those who lived outside its frontiers.

In the new issue of Current Archaeology magazine, Chris Catling reports on a new study by National Museums Scotland that pieces together the story of the Traprain Hoard, and reveals what it tells us about life and art on the fringes of the Roman empire.

Elsewhere this week, we have also been delving into the archive for more about silver in Roman Britain: we went looking for early evidence of silver extraction in Kent; we travelled to Fife to learn more about the ways in which the precious metal was used to shore up the Scottish frontier; and we even heard how hacksilver was recycled many centuries later for use in the making of fine jewellery.

And finally, if all that leaves you wanting more, don’t forget to have a go at our latest Quiz, which this week is also themed around silver. Good luck, and we hope you enjoy The Past!

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