Denarii diplomacy: Exploring Scotland’s silver age

6 mins read
The Traprain Treasure: Scotland’s largest hacksilver hoard. (ALL IMAGES: National Museums Scotland)
Silver was introduced to the inhabitants of Iron Age Scotland by the Roman army. An exhibition currently running in Edinburgh reveals the impact of this exotic material throughout the 1st millennium AD – as Alice Blackwell explains.

To the people of Iron Age Scotland, silver was a new and exotic material, arriving with the Roman army in the 1st century AD. (Exploitation of local geological sources is not attested until more than a millennium later.) The first silver coins to reach Scotland’s shores came in army pay packets and only circulated within the military community, while occasionally Roman military sites like Newstead in the Scottish Borders have yielded prestigious pieces of silver jewellery.

Early Roman silver rarely made its way into local hands – finds that are known exceptions include silver rings from Culbin Sands in Moray, and a tiny votive strainer found at the Iron Age hillfort at Traprain Law in East Lothian – and these few items did not have a substantial impact on Iron Age Scotland. That was all about to change, though. Having tried and failed to conquer the area with force, the Roman Empire sought to secure its northern border using a potent mixture of power and persuasion. Once the Antonine Wall had been abandoned in the later 2nd century, gifts, bribes or payments – the terminology is loaded – were used to buy allies, create buffer zones, and interfere in local politics.

This shift of emphasis, and the cultural ripples it caused, is illuminated in a new special exhibition at the National Museum of Scotland in Edinburgh, Scotland’s Early Silver [see our review in CA 334]. The displays chart the arrival of this precious metal in Scotland, and explore its impact across the 1st millennium AD, using both new discoveries and fresh perspectives on famous objects – the result of research supported by the Glenmorangie Company.

Do the Birnie coin hoards reflect an Iron Age community that collapsed under Roman interference?

The new frontier policy that the Romans pioneered was built on silver, with payments made in substantial quantities of denarii coins. The metal quickly became extremely sought after, more highly valued than gold, and was used to show off social status and occasionally given to the gods in votive hoards. Though these coins could not be spent and were not apparently melted down, they were clearly very attractive to their new owners. But this exciting, shiny material came at a cost. By mapping these coin hoards, we can see the Roman imperial gaze shifting around Scotland, first targeting troublemakers in Perthshire and Stirling, before apparently giving up on them in favour of their neighbours in Fife, Aberdeenshire, and Moray.

Huge neck-chains, now on display at the National Museum of Scotland, vividly illustrate how much silver was available in the 4th and 5th centuries AD.

By the 3rd century, attempts to buy off the northern tribes had been shelved altogether, with attention focused instead on central and southern Scotland. The ebb and flow of this policy had consequences: hints of this can be seen at one long-lived settlement at Birnie in Moray, for example, which was abandoned soon after two denarii hoards were buried there (see CA 181). Here, Roman interference seems to have caused instability, a pattern repeated elsewhere in the archaeological record.

These lavish bequests were not to last: after 70 years of denarii diplomacy, such coin payments ended in the early 3rd century, and an internationally significant new discovery from Fife (see Solving a silver jigsaw) has changed our understanding of what happened next. Thanks to a 14-year-old and his metal detector, we can see Roman interest in parts of Iron Age Scotland resuming in the late 3rd century. The medium had changed – from coins to hacksilver – but we now know that the empire continued its policy of using silver payments to secure the frontier. The hoard from Dairsie is the first evidence for this use of hacksilver payments from anywhere in Europe. The shift from coins to hacksilver is also important because it introduced the idea of silver as a raw material, something not kept as coins but made into new prestige objects.


As well as the earliest hacksilver from anywhere outside the Roman Empire, Scotland also boasts the largest example of this kind of hoard – the 23kg Traprain Treasure. In this cache of chopped-up tableware are pieces of an enormous platter cut to standard Roman weights, adding to the evidence that hacksilver was a Roman practice for managing its silver bullion supplies. The hillfort where this hoard was found, Traprain Law, has also produced evidence for silver-working, including a ceramic crucible with traces of the precious metal preserved inside. Its small size suits the non-Roman dress accessories that were made and used at the site – but from another area of the hillfort comes a silver object on a very different scale: a massive silver neck-chain.

The Traprain Law chain is one of 11 found in Scotland, and the nine that have survived to the present day – displayed together for the first time in Scotland’s Early Silver – show powerfully how much precious metal was available in the 4th and 5th centuries AD. Most are undecorated, suggesting that the material used and the sheer scale of the objects mattered more in terms of prestige than any ornamentation, but two are marked with versions of designs known as Pictish symbols. As a result, for many years the chains were also thought to be of Pictish origin, but most (including one of the decorated ones) were found far to the south of the main area where we see the use of Pictish symbols. Rather, they fit best in a late Roman Iron Age context, the time of peak silver availability. Indeed, analysis of one chain from southern Scotland suggests it was made from undiluted late Roman silver.

The Norrie’s Law Hoard.

The decline of the western Roman Empire brought an end to imperial precious-metal payments, and with no evidence for the exploitation of local silver sources, recycling old silver objects became vital. Thanks to new research and a new discovery, we now have the first evidence for this management. Two hoards, from Norrie’s Law in Fife and Gaulcross in Aberdeenshire, show that the practice of hacking silver into regular portions and parcels continued long after the end of Roman administration in Britain.

Research on neglected finds from the Norrie’s Law Hoard, for example, recognised this hacking for the first time. Archaeologists revisiting the findspot of another cache at Gaulcross (whose contents were largely lost shortly after its original excavation), meanwhile, recovered 90 further fragments of hacksilver that showed that the two hoards were closely related. Both collections contain Roman and non-Roman objects, many of which are rare or unique; each of the hoards is a useful snapshot of things that otherwise were lost to recycling. The hoards were also both chance finds made by 19th-century labourers, and both suffered as a result, with most of the silver sold on and melted down – recycling really does run like a seam of ore through this story. Finally, both hoards had been deposited at the site of older prehistoric monuments, suggesting a votive rather than purely practical motivation may lie behind their burial.

Tarnished beauty: the st Ninian’s Isle bowl bears green traces of verdigris, a tell-tale sign that its silver content had been diluted with copper alloy.

Generations of recycling culminated in providing metal for that classic status symbol of early medieval Scotland: the brooch. Early examples tend to be made from silver alone and bear only simple decoration. From the 7th century, though, connections with the Anglo- Saxon world stimulated the creation of new objects and designs, and the introduction of small quantities of gilding or gold wire decoration on the most prestigious brooches. Underneath this thin gold veneer, though, objects like the Hunterston brooch – the most elaborate example known from Scotland – are made from the traditional local power material of silver.

By now, relentless recycling was taking its toll. With every melt came the opportunity to dilute the metal, to add a little more copper alloy into the mix. Some of the 8th-century brooches, bowls, and weapon fittings buried at St Ninian’s Isle in Shetland show the consequences of this stretching: green verdigris, a tell-tale sign of high copper-alloy content. They would have looked silver when used, though – clearly a silver appearance was more important than purity at this time. Fresh supplies were not far away, however. With the dawn of the Viking Age came another wave of bullion, the first new silver to reach Scotland since late Roman payments like that found at Traprain Law. Such finds link two invading peoples with a shining silver thread, and allow us to weave together their impact on Iron Age and early medieval Scotland.

This feature appeared in CA 335.

1 Comment

  1. A very interesting article. The real significance of a switch from a silver coinage to hack silver is that it is an indication of a breakdown in State Power. States need to provision themselves with goods and services bought from their local population. They do this by imposing a tax which can only be redeemed by payment with the State issued currency. The Romans obviously could and did impose themselves in other more violent ways but longer term this had counterproductive consequences. So when we see the emergence of hack silver what we are witnessing is the failure of a State to resource itself

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