Latest news from Border Archaeological Society
Dr Fraser Hunter, of the National Museum of Scotland, was the guest speaker at the Border Archaeological Society's February lecture.
His talk, entitled Scotland’s Early Silver – From Roman Bribes To Pictish Bling, covered approximately 1,000 years, from 75 to 1000AD, from the Roman period to the Vikings. It is also the subject of an exhibition currently running at the museum.
The patchy distribution of coins found, from Central-Southern Scotland up the coast to Moray Firth, indicates that the Romans were targeting certain segments of the population.
The hoard found at Birnie, Elgin, Moray, 300 miles North of the Roman frontier, was buried in a complex of massive houses, some 20m in diameter and 10m tall. Consisting of some 600 coins, and first found by metal detectorists, the hoard was probably some sort of payment.
Archaeology at Birnie indicates it was a craft centre as textiles, iron, jewellery (a tiny piece of a gold necklace and a wide range of brooches), pottery and glass have also been found.
Stamped with the faces of Roman Emperors, the coins were not only used in diplomacy, they were a sign of Rome’s favour and carried an enormous amount of prestige. The Romans knew this, and therefore distributed them very carefully. It was a way of interfering with local politics and could be stopped at any time as tribes fell out of favour. There is evidence of different societies receiving silver, then having it taken away.
Things changed as the Picts became dominant. Not only had the native population been turning against the Romans, but conflicts within the Roman Empire itself were felt.
From about 300AD onwards, we have hacksilver. Basically, it is anything made of silver cut into small bits – vessels, household wares, cutlery, jewellery, etc. However, careful analysis has discovered that the silver was not just hacked at, it was carefully cut into a Roman weight system. Coins were not hacked and remained whole.
Archaeologists also began to see patterns in hoard locations. They found stumps of standing stones and ancient monuments that were already 2,000 years old when the silver was buried.
A hoard of hacksilver from about 300AD was found at Dairsie, Fife, by a metal detectorist in 2014. There were over 400 fragments, not only hacked by the Romans, but also by ploughing.
Research revealed that there were four vessels: some fragments had exquisite decorations, two were from a basin used for washing hands before a feast, and another a drinking bowl with a wreath of olives and vines. Some of the silver dated from 100AD, showing it was old silver.
It could be that taxation compelled Romans to part with their silver, which was then hacked.
The largest hoard of hacksilver in Scotland was found at Traprain Law, a hill East of Edinburgh. Traprain Law had been in existence since 1000BC. The silver, which started life as Roman tableware, contains a mixture of Christian and pagan motifs.
Hacksilver from the seventh century was found at Norrie’s Law in Fife in 1819, and evidence leads to the suspicion that fakes were made by 19th century jewellers.
The Gaulcross (Aberdeenshire) Hoard, originally discovered in 1839, but enlarged by more recent investigation, is from the fourth or fifth century.
Why was the silver hacked, then taken North beyond the frontier? It could be that Roman armies were no longer what they had been. Foreign mercenaries were employed and perhaps this was their payment.
They could also have been used for political gifts – a buffer to try to cushion the Northern frontier. Hacksilver was melted down and made into chains, which have been found in Eastern Scotland and may have been a symbol of local power. Similar hoards have been found in other places on the edge of the Roman Empire, such as Denmark and the Baltic area. Perhaps they were pay-offs to keep the peace.
What do you do when the Roman Empire and the supply of silver come to an end? We see the collecting of silver to be recycled and reused over the next several centuries. From 600AD onwards brooches were becoming the status symbol in Scotland. Recycled Roman silver has been found with Anglo-Saxon decorations and Viking runes.
Dr Hunter summed up the importance of the Roman legacy: the silver went from Roman tableware to hacking to recycled prestige goods.
The speaker in March will be Tony Wilmott, senior archaeologist at Historic England. His lecture is entitled Whitby Abbey – 30 Years Of New Research.
Since 1993, English Heritage/Historic England have undertaken excavation and research at the abbey. This has completely changed our picture of St Hild’s monastery, which hosted the Great Synod of AD664. Subsequent history includes the sack of the monastery during Viking raids and its re-foundation in the Norman period. After the dissolution of the monastery in the 16th century, the abbey became the property of the Cholmely family, who built a great house and garden.
This lecture will describe the work and the new conclusions that are possible across all periods. Tony Wilmott has excavated many important Roman and medieval sites during his career. He was voted Current Archaeology magazine Archaeologist of the Year in 2012.
Proceedings start at 7.30pm in the Parish Centre, The Parade, Berwick. The event is free to members, £2 charge for visitors.