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Hacksilver, hoards and ancient jewellery: Unlocking the mysteries of Scottish silver 1

a photo of a halved silver platter with a bearded man's face on it

Half of a silver platter with the head of Hercules in medallion and hunting scenes outside, from Traprain Law. © National Museums Scotland

As National Museums Scotland prepares to unveil an exhibition showcasing Roman and Early Medieval silver, Alice Blackwell, Glenmorangie Research Fellow, talks about about power and prestige in the first millennium AD

Silver was powerful in Scotland from the start – more important than gold for a thousand years. It first arrived in the lands we now call Scotland with the Roman army in the first century AD as a new material that changed how people showed and measured power and prestige.

Scotland’s early silver arrived as coins, silver denarii that were used as bribes or “gifts” by the Roman Empire to divide and conquer the local Iron Age tribes beyond their frontier. Those coins became really important social status symbols to Iron Age communities. They couldn’t spend them, and they didn’t melt them down either. Instead the coins were used to impress and were eventually buried in the ground, perhaps as offerings.

Silver was attractive because it was new, exotic and tied up with the power of Rome. From the late 3rd century we see Roman payments switching from coinage to hacked-up bullion. Our Scotland’s Early Silver exhibition includes the first display of a fascinating new hacksilver discovery from Dairsie in Fife – the earliest evidence this kind of bullion payment known from anywhere beyond the Empire.

a photo of a brooch with a central pin

The hunterston brooch rear view. © National Museums Scotland

a photo of avarious pieces of Ancient silver jewellery and coins

Selection of Scotland’s earliest silver c80-100AD. © National Museums Scotland

a photo of a fragment of an engraved plate with a naked woman on it

Part of a flat silver plate showing Venus rising from the waves, from Traprain Law, 410 – 425 AD. © National Museums Scotland

Beautiful Roman bowls and plates and cups and dishes were hacked up inside the Roman Empire – no longer valued for their inherent beauty, they are sheer bullion and just valued for their weight in silver. This change in how the payments were made, from coins to hacksilver, had big implications for Scotland – while they hadn’t melted the coins down, this hacked-up stuff was made to be recycled and this shift opened the way for the making of silver objects Scotland.

As well as the earliest hacksilver hoard from anywhere beyond the frontier in Europe, the exhibition shows a selection from the biggest, found at Traprain Law in East Lothian.

The Traprain Law hoard is 23 kilograms of silver and it gives you an idea of the amount of this raw material that was around. Though intended as bullion to be recycled, it was buried and was never melted down – that’s why it survives today.

What was this silver being turned into? Some was made into incredibly powerful jewellery. We can see from objects like the massive silver neck chains – the heaviest weighs almost 3 kilograms – that silver was plentiful but also being used for really ostentatious, personal objects. These chains are only really practical because they’re so short. They’re worn almost like a choker and so the weight sits on your shoulders, almost like carrying the heaviness in a rucksack.

a photo of a set of silver rings

Silver arm rings from the Burray hoard, 997 – 1010 AD.

a photo of lots of pieces of bent and broken silver

The Gaulcross hoard. © National Museums Scotland

a close up of interlocked silver chains

Pictish chain of 22 double links with ring engraved with designs inlaid with red enamel, from Whitecleugh, Lanarkshire, 6th or 7th century. © National Museum Scotland

The chains probably date to around the fourth or fifth century AD, a really crucial transition period between Roman Iron Age and Early Medieval Scotland. At the time they were the heaviest jewellery that had ever been made in Scotland. Several centuries earlier massive bronze armlets had been made in the north east of Scotland – these look ridiculously heavy, but the silver chains are bigger still. And they’re made out of silver rather than bronze, a step change in the investment in personal ornament.

They are also unique to Scotland. The exhibition includes other contemporary jewellery like pins and rings that you find across Ireland and northern Britain, but the chains are exclusive. Only nine survive and they are displayed together in the exhibition for the first time ever. Their size suggests that some at least were designed for women or for adolescents, which is interesting given the usual assumption that powerful people in this period, like most periods in the past, were men.

“Two little snapshots of things that have otherwise been totally lost”

We think the chains are related to Iron Age torcs, the last iteration if you like of a very long lived idea of wearing something very impressive and powerful and valuable around your neck. Seven of them are totally undecorated – their power comes from the size and the scale and the silver. Two feature red enamel designs that are unique to Scotland but the materials and the way in which they’re rendered are found in other Romano-British metalwork.

The core of our research is built around hack silver. We’ve been doing a massive amount of work to try and understand these fragmented objects, particularly from two hoards found at Norrie’s Law in Fife and Gaulcross in Aberdeenshire. It’s meant doing simultaneous jigsaw puzzles, both to try and work out what the objects were and also to understand the hacking and what it means.

Everything in both of those hoards is either incredibly rare or unique. They’re two little snapshots of things that have otherwise been totally lost to this kind of recycling. Amongst both hoards are bangles that were worn round the wrist that you just don’t see anywhere else. From Gaulcross is part of a beautiful tiny silver brooch hoop, incredibly rare in silver. Both hoards also contain beautifully decorated enamelled pins and also lots of pieces of sheet, including some that may belong to a sort of bowl that you more commonly find on the continent.

Leaf-shaped plaque of silver bearing two symbols of the early sculptured stones of Scotland, Pictish, from Norrie’s Law, Fife, 7th century. © National Museum Scotland

a photo of a large chunky chain made of silver rings

Pictish chain of double rings of silver with penannular terminal ring engraved with a symbol of a sculptured stone, Aberdeenshire, 400-800AD. © National Museum Scotland

a photo of an elliptical brooch with a clasp

Silver brooch formed of a round ring with expanded and flattened end, ornamented with two rows of dots round the edges, from Tummel Bridge. © National Museum Scotland

Before we started this research we thought hacksilver was just a Roman thing; it arrived from the Empire in these Roman hacked up silver payments, and then when the Empire crumbled that was it. But our research has recognised that these two hoards date to around the end of the Roman Empire and immediately afterwards, showing that this way of managing precious metal supplies continued.

But this recycling was not just a thing of the past, because in the 19th century part of both of these hoards were melted down and turned into 19th-century tableware! From Norrie’s Law we only have what the landowner could salvage – and records suggest it is a tiny proportion of what was originally found. From Gaulcross we had only three objects, with the rest melted down after it was found when farm labourers dynamited two stone circles there. We revisited the find spot and our field work uncovered another 90 fragments of silver – these reveal it to be a hacksilver hoard.

Why was silver the dominant precious metal for a thousand years in Scotland? Value is always culturally inscribed, we forget that because today we assume that gold is more valuable; things are the gold standard or winners win gold medals, but different times and places across the world have valued different metals above gold.

For our story, silver’s importance was a combination of availability and choice. The root of it is with Roman foreign policy; while elsewhere beyond its frontier the Roman Empire used gold and silver for payments to ‘barbarian’ groups, here in Britain the Empire almost exclusively used silver for these payments. Silver was available to be recycled.

But it’s also a product of choice. Gold had a long history in Scotland, a metal that had been used since the Bronze Age, but silver was brand new, exotic and tied up with the Roman Empire. Silver quickly became adopted as the main way in which you showed how important and how high status you were. It retained this special status for the rest of the first millennium AD.

a photo of a bowl with verdigris and engraving

Bowl of silver, decorated with four pairs of grotesque animals, interlocking, Pictish, from St Ninian’s Isle, 8th century. © National Museum Scotland

Alice Blackwell was speaking to Richard Moss

Scotland’s Early Silver is a free exhibition (October 13 2017 – February 25 2018) at the National Museum of Scotland, Edinburgh.

The exhibition and accompanying book have been generously supported by The Glenmorangie Company. A pioneering partnership between National Museums Scotland and the whisky company has supported archaeological research since 2008.


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Edinburgh, Lothian

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One comment on “Hacksilver, hoards and ancient jewellery: Unlocking the mysteries of Scottish silver

  1. Martha Nickle on

    This was a terrific article. Yesterday I came across a very unusual piece of jewellery. It is marked Silver and Scotland. it is known as a Penanular brooch and wonder how I can find out more about it. We found it at an estate auction with other unusual jewellery pieces.


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