For centuries Scotland’s finely crafted silver brooches, neck chains, vessels, and more were made from a supply of recycled Roman hacksilver. Lucia Marchini learns more about the medieval afterlife of this metal at the National Museum of Scotland’s new exhibition.
When a spectacular array of cut-up silver artefacts was discovered at Traprain Law, East Lothian, in 1919, scholars at the time thought it was simply a case of those unruly barbarians north of Hadrian’s Wall, far too uncultured to appreciate Roman craftsmanship, hacking the fine goods they had plundered to pieces. As more recent research has shown, though, this is far from the case. Fragments like this, known as hacksilver, were deliberately portioned up to standard Roman weights and sent beyond the frontiers of empire as powerful diplomatic tools. One site in Scotland, and many more from elsewhere in Europe, have yielded similar, though smaller, collections, some containing pieces of silver vessels folded into neat parcels.
Scotland had not seen any silver before its inhabitants came into contact with the Romans, and local silver-working came another few centuries after this. (Later still, in the 12th century AD, David I was known to have minted his coinage using Carlisle silver, while the first written mention of local silver mining does not come until the 14th century.) The first Roman silver to reach Scotland came with the army, but soon imperial authorities also began to use coins as gifts or bribes to build relationships with local Iron Age groups. These coins had no value as currency, yet they were not melted down. Instead they were prized in their own right, as markers of power, prestige, and friends in high places, and were buried in hoards at sites across the country. Yet this esteem also led to less salubrious exchanges: four ceramic moulds for forging denarii are known from Scottish Iron Age sites, whose inhabitants may have hoped to trade their counterfeits with the rest of Roman Britain.
Nonetheless, the precious metal held on to its high value throughout the first millennium – something that is explored in Scotland’s Early Silver, a new exhibition at the National Museum of Scotland. Unlike the coins, which were kept intact, pieces of splendid silverware were melted down and reworked for centuries to come. By the late 3rd century, moreover, silver coins were often debased with copper, so hacksilver from high-quality vessels, ready for recycling, became the norm for payments.
The Traprain Law Treasure was buried in the 5th century, and at a mighty 23kg in weight, it is the largest hoard of Roman hacksilver found outside the bounds of the Empire (see CA 283). Its contents include exquisite bowls, handles shaped like panthers, spoons decorated with Christian motifs, goblets, and flagons, some of which underwent restoration in the 20th century in an attempt to conceal their cutmarks. The Iron Age inhabitants of East Lothian had received this bounty for helping secure the frontier, but they did not merely hoard their silver. Crucibles have also been found at the site, demonstrating that in AD 300-500 the Traprain Law community was also reworking the metal, turning former Roman tableware into prestigious dress accessories.
Another noteworthy cache came to light in 2015. The Dairsie Hoard contains material from the late 3rd century – the earliest-known Roman hacksilver – and includes a rough fragment of a vessel whose coarse, uneven surface is a marked aberration from the quality of other artefacts in this and other hoards. There are two possible explanations: that it was a flawed casting intentionally left unfinished, or that its current state was only ever meant to be transitory, as it was in the process of being recycled. (Watch out for more on the Dairsie Hoard, and on Scottish silver, in CA 335.)
After the collapse of the western Roman Empire, Scotland’s supply of silver dried up – and, until the Vikings brought new supplies centuries later, the same limited resources were being recycled repeatedly. In some cases, other metals like copper would be added to make the dwindling silver stretch further, as can be seen in an 8th-century bowl from St Ninian’s Isle, Shetland, once shining silver in appearance, but now grown green with corrosion.
Silver was still much desired, however, although it seems that the look of the metal mattered more than its purity. We can see the material being reused in elaborate brooches crafted in local styles, whose wearers boasted wealth and far-reaching connections and influence. The famous Hunterston Brooch, for instance, is largely made of silver but also has panels of Anglo-Saxon-influenced gold filigree on the front, while its rear bears an inscription in Scandinavian runes.
Unique to Scotland, and representing remarkable displays of status, are a number of massive silver chains dating from AD 400-800. Eleven of these were discovered in the 18th-20th centuries, but only nine have survived to the present day, and in the National Museum of Scotland’s exhibition, they are on display together for the first time. The heaviest weighs roughly 3kg, but some of the chains are in fact too small to be worn by fully grown men – they seem more suited to the necks of women or adolescents – and most were left undecorated, designed to impress through the sheer quality and quantity of the increasingly scarce material used in their creation. Two, however, have Pictish symbols engraved on their terminal rings – including one from Whiteclugh, some way south of traditional Pictish territories.
Similar motifs can be seen on other silver objects. One of Scotland’s only two known hacksilver hoards from the early medieval period, buried at Norrie’s Law, Fife, in the 5th or 6th century, contains a unique mount decorated with Pictish symbols. New research has proposed that this small plaque could be part of a composite helmet, an item previously unrecorded among the Picts. The other Pictish hoard of this type was found about 130 miles away in Gaulcross, Aberdeenshire, in the 19th century, and its contents were later largely lost. More recent excavations in 2013, however, recovered 90 more fragments of silver, including hacksilver packages and ingots, representing a crucial step in the recycling process. With new discoveries like this and the Dairsie Hoard, the story of Scotland’s early silver is growing ever richer.
Scotland’s Early Silver runs until 25 February 2018 at the National Museum of Scotland. Admission is free. Visit www.nms.ac.uk/national-museum-of-scotland/whats-on/scotlands-early-silver/ for more information. The exhibition and research was funded by the Glenmorangie Company, and the exhibition is accompanied by a book of the same name which explores the research in greater detail.
This review appeared in CA 334.