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Traprain Law, 'traprain Treasure'

Hoard (Roman)

Site Name Traprain Law, 'traprain Treasure'

Classification Hoard (Roman)

Canmore ID 56384

Site Number NT57SE 1.18

NGR NT 5793 7458

Datum OSGB36 - NGR


Ordnance Survey licence number 100057073. All rights reserved.
© Copyright and database right 2017.

Digital Images

Administrative Areas

  • Council East Lothian
  • Parish Prestonkirk
  • Former Region Lothian
  • Former District East Lothian
  • Former County East Lothian

Archaeology Notes

NT57SE 1.18 5793 7458

This treasure of Roman silver plate was found (packed together in a pit) within the area of the village on Traprain Law in 1919. It weighs over 53lb. and includes pieces of over 150 objects manufactured at various (unidentified) locations within the Roman Empire in the 4th century AD. Four clipped silver coins (one of Valens and three of Arcadius and Honorius) found in the hoard suggest a date within the range 410-25 AD, although it could be later.

Most of the objects are table silver, but there are also specifically Christian objects (possibly from a church) as well as articles from a lady's dressing-table and from an officer's uniform. Few objects were found entire, most being cut or hacked into pieces and crushed flat; only parts of some were found. A few pieces were crushed into packets, as if for weighing, the larger such packets weighing betwen a half and three-quarters of a Roman pound.

Most of the pieces in the hoard would have been used in dining, and might have been displayed on the sideboard when not in use. They include parts of 8 large jugs (probably used for wine), 5 wine goblets, 50 bowls, 22 flat round dishes, 6 square dishes, 6 spoons and various other pieces. A group of 8 small round bowls and a triangular bowl have beaded rims. One attractive complete piece is a small ladle, perhaps for serving sauces, with a handle in the form of a dolphin. While some bowls and dishes are plain, others are elaborately decorated with gilding and niello inlay; the motifs include scenes of gods, goddesses and heroes, animals in combat, and various foliage and geometric patterns. The mixture of styles indicates manufacture in several different workshops.

The hoard includes a small group of vessels decorated with Christian scenes or motifs which are paralleled in the hoard from Water Newton (near Peterborough) and were possibly the church plate of an Early Christian community. There was no difference in shape between secular and sacred vessels at this date, and identification is on the basis of Christian motifs or inscriptions, most notably the Chi-Rho. The silver-gilt flask is decorated with four scenes from the Old and New Testaments: Adam and Eve, the Adoration, Moses striking the rock, and a scene which has identified as the Betrayal of Christ by Judas, but may be the miracle of the quails in the desert (another scene from the life of Moses). Similar scenes are known from Roman stone coffins and from paintings in the Catacombs, but this is one of the earliest-known examples of Christian scenes depicted on metalwork. A second smaller flask of similar shape has a Chi-Rho, A and O, and an inscription of uncertain meaning. A small strainer, whose long handle is now missing, has a bowl perforated in the shape of a Chi-Rho with further holes below the rim forming the words 'Jesus Christus'. Strainers were a normal part ofa set of vessels for serving wine, but this one must have been made for a church. Two of the spoons in the hoard have a Chi-Rho motif inside the bowl while another has a fish engraved on it. Such spoons are not necessarily church plate, but would have belonged to a Chistian household.

Two fragments of silver mirrors have recently been identified; these were flat and polished on one side with a loop handle attached to the other. Parts of tall silver jars probably came from a toilet box and held ointments.

Another group of objects appear to be fittings from a military officer's uniform and are of types otherwise known only in bronze. These buckles and strap fittings reflect Germanic taste, particularly the strap-ends with their 'chip-carved' ornament of a type which resembles some forms of carved decoration on wood; it used to be thought that such pieces must have belonged to Germans from outside the Empire, but they are now recognised as having been common in the late empire, although one buckle and a brooch are of types only paralleled in Hungary.

The hoard has traditionally been explained as loot brought back from the continent by British raiders, but discovery of a hoard of complete silver vessels at Mildenhall (Suffolk) indicates that material of this quality could be found in raiding in southern Britain. It has also been suggested that it represents payments to native mercenary troops or allies assisting in defence against the Saxons, comparable hoards being cited at Coleraine and Balline in Ireland.

Almost all the objects have been restored and regilded for display.

J Close-Brooks 1980.


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