© the British Museum: Roman coins from the Hoxne hoard

 

the hoxne hoard

Discovery

The Hoxne Hoard is the largest hoard of late 4th century Roman silver and gold ever discovered in the United Kingdom. The Hoxne Hoard was voted 3rd by British Museum experts in the TV documentary “Our Top Ten Treasures”.

 

On 16th November 1992, Eric Lawes, a metal detecting enthusiast, stumbled upon the hoard after he went looking for a local farmer’s hammer, lost in a field. The amazing hoard of over 15,000 roman coins and over 200 silver and gold artifacts was excavated when archaeologists were called in and is now in the British Museum. For finding the hoard, Lawes received £1.75m which was shared equally between himself and the tenant farmer. This was the largest payment ever given out since the Treasure Act was introduced.

 

 

The find was in such great condition that even fragments of textile and decorative bone were found, which had amazingly lasted for over 1,500 years! The hoard had been buried in a wooden box which had long since rotted away but archaeologists worked so carefully that they were still able to tell the way the objects had been packed. They dated the find back to the late 4th century to early 5th century Roman era. The hoard was probably hidden during the political turmoil of the time when the Roman Empire started to break down in Britain. Whilst it has not been possible to determine the owner of the gold, several objects are inscribed with the name Aurelius Ursicinus. The hoard was probably connected to a small Roman settlement in nearby Scole - this sat on the road from Colchester to Caister-by-Norwich.

 

An announcement on the completion of the detailed scholarly work is expected sometime in 2010.

 

Coins

Of the 15,000 coins found in the hoard, 565 of the coins are solid gold Roman currency solidi, whereas the remaining 14,191 are silver. Over 99% of these are Roman siliquae of the late Roman Era which were minted from 337 AD – 407 AD, depicting 15 different Roman Emperors. 24 bronze nummi, loose change, were also buried. The silver artifacts consist of around 100 beautifully crafted spoons and ladles with gilded designs of marine deities and gilded handles.

 

Photos ©The British Museum

 

Bracelets

The silver artifacts consist of around 100 beautifully crafted spoons and ladles with gilded designs of marine deities and gilded handles. Nineteen gold bracelets were also found in matching pairs and sets of four. The bracelets in pierced gold are of fine quality and two of the bracelets depict figured scenes in relief. The Juliana Bracelet, in pierced gold, bears the phrase UTERE FELIX DOMINA IULIANE, which means wishing good fortune and good luck to Lady Juliana.

 

Silver Tigress

One of the most famous items in the hoard is the silver tigress which was the handle to a silver vase or amphora which hasn’t been found. The figure is a solid casting with stripes inlaid with niello (a black, metallic alloy) which is black against the silver metal.

 

Empress Pepper Pot

Also found was the ‘Empress’ Pepper Pot, one of four found in the hoard. Pepper was imported from India to the Roman Empire in 1st century AD. Piperatoria, containers of expensive spice, are still a rare find. This pepper pot was formed in the shape of the bust of an Imperial lady of the late Roman Era. The details on the empress and her clothing and jewellery are gilded and she holds a scroll in her hand. A disc in the base has three positions, one is a large opening for filling with pepper, one is for sprinkling and one is closed.

 

Pepper did not grow in Britain or any other part of the Roman Empire. It was grown in India and to get to Suffolk, the pepper was first shipped to Egypt and then transported by sea, river and over land. Pepper was just one expensive luxury traded across the Indian Ocean in ancient times. To put the value of pepper into context, when the Visigoths besieged Rome in AD 410, they demanded a ransom of one ton of pepper to leave the city unharmed

 

So who was the Hoxne empress? According to Dr Catherine Johns, Roman archaeologist and curator of the British Museum "The silver pepper- or spice-container from the Hoxne treasure in the form of a female half-figure was originally named ‘the Empress’ because of its marked resemblance to a series of ancient bronze weights cast in the form of female busts that had been widely regarded as portraits of Byzantine empresses. However, research in recent years on both the bronze weights and on the Hoxne statuette has moved away from this interpretation.

 

She wears a voluminous T-shaped tunic with wide sleeves, a style that was popular in the late fourth and fifth centuries. The tunic is decorated with embroidered or woven patterns at the cuffs and on two vertical bands that pass over the shoulders and down the front and back of the garment. The gilded decoration around her wrists probably represents the close-fitting sleeves of her under-tunic. Her jewellery is as sumptuous as her dress: around her neck is depicted a necklace of very large gemstones set in gold. Above it is another decorated feature, perhaps a second gold necklace or simply the neckline of the under-tunic. The figure holds a scroll, probably to symbolise her learning and authority.

 

The most striking aspect of the lady’s appearance is her intricate hairstyle, one that was often represented in late-Roman art. It would have required very long, thick hair and the attentions of a skilled hairdresser to create. Thick sections of hair at each side were dressed to create a frame of full waves around the face, while the back hair was divided into a series of tresses which were twisted in alternating directions: two thin braids were crossed and brought round the head behind the side-waves, while the main fall of tresses was swept up over the back of the head in a broad swathe, folded under at the top of the head, and anchored in place with decorative hairpins. The latter were probably made of precious metal, and seen from the front create an effect like a diadem or tiara. The lady’s ears are hidden, but she wears two very large almond-shaped earrings or hair ornaments, probably gemstones set in gold.

 

If the Hoxne figure is not a portrait of a late-Roman empress, who is she? She is not a goddess, for pagan deities generally wear or carry distinctive attributes that tell us their identity. Nor is there anything to indicate that she is an early Christian saint or martyr. She may simply portray a wealthy and aristocratic late-Roman woman, just the kind of person who would have owned and used the jewellery and tableware in the hoard."

 

The Hoxne Empress Pepper Pot is the subject of BBC Radio 4's programme "A History of the World in 100 Objects: Object 40. This was broadcast on the 28th May 2010" Click here to hear it.

 

Toiletry Implements

There were toiletry implements, which include toothpicks, small implements probably used to clean the ears or removing cosmetics from small containers. There is also a niello gilded pair of objects in the form of ibises which were used again as toothpicks. There are three other objects which probably contained brushes for cosmetics and creams.

 

Body Chain

The gold body chain has the appearance of a finely knitted together braid. This chain would be pass over the shoulders and under the arms and be fixed in place by two decorative "clasps". One of these "clasps" is a gold coin of Emperor Gratian (AD 367-383) mounted in an elaborately designed gold border. The other "clasp" is of ornamental brooch design. A central amethyst is surrounded by eight cells: four of the cells are garnet gemstones, probably separated by four pearls (they often deteriorated during burial) in an attractive red/white combination. These body chains are extremely rare. The Hoxne chain is quite small and would have fitted an adolescent girl or petite woman. The gold content is estimated to be just shy of 250 grams - a very valuable piece of jewellery then and a priceless one now.

 

Want to find out more?

Web links::

Why not visit The British Museum or take their on line tour of the Hoxne Hoard.

 

Books:

The Late Roman Gold and Silver Coins from the Hoxne Treasure

The Hoxne Treasure: An Illustrated Handbook