Topping Talks: Scotland and the Roman Empire

I’ll admit that before last week, I knew nothing about Roman silver. In fact, I know very little about the Romans bar what I’ve learnt from Monty Python’s 1979 film The Life of Brian (aqueducts are big news as I understand it). In fact, the period before the year 700AD in Britain is a bit of a mystery to me, so I couldn’t begin to explain how 400 pieces of silver found in a field near Dairsie, Fife has impacted upon our understanding of early medieval Scottish society. But luckily for me (and you) I know of someone who can.

For nine years Alice Blackwell has held the post of  Glenmorangie research fellow at the National Museum of Scotland before being recently promoted to a curatorship. On 30th January 2018, I attended a talk she gave at Topping & Co. in St Andrews, where she explained the findings of her three-year investigation into early Scottish silver and the importance of the Dairsie hoard. The project has illuminated a potential narrative in Scotland’s early history between 40AD and 400AD, the events of which period had previously been shrouded in uncertainty.

Early medieval Britons first came into contact with silver through their interactions with the Roman army, who arrived on the island c.40AD. But it seems that the silver they brought with them had a limited impact in Scotland until the second century AD, when archaeologists have witnessed a flood of Roman silver coins across large swathes of the country; about 6000 coins from 40 hoards across Scotland. The Romans offered these coins and other silver objects in the forms of gifts, payments and bribes to buy friends and buy off enemies north of the empire’s frontier. It is curious that silver was so valued by Scotland’s early communities, indeed, the Romans only used silver in its dealings with frontier regions here, and nowhere else in the empire. This can perhaps be explained by the fact that silver was a brand new material to Iron Age Scots. Although Britain has its own silver repositories, these were not exploited until much later in the medieval period. Before they were introduced to the precious metal, bronze was the favoured material of British Iron Age communities, with gold only occasionally being used to make status objects.

But Scotland did not have a monetary currency at this time, so what use did its communities have for Roman coins? Alice Blackwell argues that their attraction was likely a combination of excitement over a new material, and a new type of art. Roman depictions of emperors, heroes and other famous faces, found on coins as well as many surviving plates, drinking bowls and other precious objects, were realistic and life-like. This was in stark contrast to Pictish art which expressed humans and animals in more abstract and symbolic forms.

This system of gift-giving which saw Roman silver being passed over the northern-most border of the empire continued until the Roman army retreated from Britain in the fifth century AD. Without an influx of new silver entering the country, early medieval Scots began to recycle the Roman pieces and fashion them into their own designs, a process which lasted for around 500 years until Anglo-Saxon and Viking silver was introduced to Britain. Arguably the highlight of the current exhibition at the National Museum of Scotland, is the collection of impressive silver chains like those found in the Traprain Law hoard. At 3kg a piece, these incredible pieces of jewellery were astonishingly heavy and uncomfortable to wear but served as important status objects, most likely worn around the necks of high-ranking women and adolescents. Some of the chains are twice as heavy as the crown of Scotland made hundreds of years later. All nine chains of this kind ever to be found are shown together in the exhibition.

In the seventh and eighth centuries AD, as time wore on the difficulties of recycling silver can be seen in objects recovered from the St Ninian’s Isle hoard, also part of the NMS exhibition. Some of the reworked silver items are stained green, due to the presence of copper alloy which was added to stretch the silver further and has tarnished over time. The addition of copper alloy demonstrates a change in the attitude towards silver from the Roman occupation to the early medieval period; the former valued silver for its purity, the latter only required the look of silver when creating status objects.

So where does the Dairsie hoard fit into all this? In 2014, a fourteen-year-old amateur metal detectorist named David Hall and his father were surveying a recently ploughed field in Dairsie, Fife. No Roman remains had previously been found in the field or surrounding area, so the pair were astonished by the collection they found, which they immediately declared to Treasure Trove. The hoard, located close to a nearby standing stone, contained 400 pieces of silver from four, third-century vessels. It has been speculated that the presence of a nearby standing stone in the field, may bear particular significance to the find. Of course, as a recognisable place in the landscape, it would make it easier for the owner to retrieve the hoard at a later date. However, Alice Blackwell pointed out that another silver hoard found in Murray was located between two standing stone circles, and a find in Newgrange in Ireland displayed a similar burial pattern. She posited that this could mean that the hoards were buried as a votive offering, not as a temporary burial, and were in someway linked to the religious beliefs of the early medieval owners, although it is impossible to say for sure.

Even more interestingly, archaeologists discovered that, while much of the silver had been broken by plough activity over the years, two of the vessels had been intentionally cut up before they were placed in the ground. This identified the find as a hoard of hacksilver, objects deliberately broken up into silver bullion. Coupled with the third-century AD dating of the silver, this led archaeologists to conclude that sometime after 200AD, there was a change in Roman foreign policy. Their silver coins and objects were no longer the currency used to bribe and parlay with the peoples beyond the frontiers of the empire. Perhaps the novelty of Roman art and design had worn off for early medieval Scots, who desired to make their own silver objects and needed raw bullion to do so, which the Roman army provided. Whether this policy change suggests that the frontier peoples were able to demand this raw silver from their neighbours is hard to say. But this staggering find has certainly helped to fill in hundreds of years of silence in the narrative of early medieval Scottish interaction with the Roman empire, and hints at the nature of the relationship between this monolithic imperial power and the early native peoples of Scotland.


‘Scotland’s Early Silver’, which features findings from the hoards at Dairsie, St Ninian’s Isle, Traprain Law and many others, is open until 25th February 2018 at the National Museum of Scotland:

You can also check out Alice Blackwell’s blog on the project here:

IMPORTANT DISCLAIMER:  I do not own any of the included images.

Featured image used with permission from Topping and Co. St Andrews.

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