The secret Roman silver under Scottish soil
The Roman Empire may not have lasted long in the cold, unforgiving climate of ancient Caledonia, but it left behind a treasure that survived the ages.
In 1909, archaeologists in East Lothian uncovered a massive hoard of Roman silver under Traprain Law, a large hill thought to have been the site of a Celtic iron-age fort. Now on display at the National Museum of Scotland, the silver is the largest ever discovered outside the Roman Empire, weighing over 22kg and comprising some 160 pieces.
One of the most remarkable items in the collection is the so-called ‘Traprain Law dish’. A sumptuous engraved platter that would be used for feasting and ceremony of the highest order. Some of the coins found at the site are also particularly rare. Perhaps having come from as far afield as ancient Antioch (modern-day Turkey) or even Constantinople.
The history of the silver remains shrouded in mystery. Some have suggested that the treasures may have been seized by the native Votadini tribe from the Romans during their retreat from Caledonia. It was then used as a trophy for their victory. Others believe that the Romans actually paid the war-like tribes in silver to stop them from crossing Hadrian’s Wall.
What we do know for certain is that when the Romans left the area for good, the nearby tribes did so as well, abandoning the fortress at Traprain Law for the north, and leaving behind a treasure that would not be discovered for another fourteen hundred years. Who knows what other ancient troves may still be hiding under Scottish soil today?
- When discovered, the silver at Traprain Law stank heavily of rotten-eggs and sulphur due to chemical reactions with the soil.
- The collection includes an ancient silver jigsaw puzzle, which sadly is still missing some of its pieces.
- Most of the silverware at Traprain Law had been cut up into small pieces. Ready to be smelted down into silver for currency by the Votadini.
- The Votadini tribe of Traprain Law are also likely to have controlled the sites of Edinburgh and Sterling castles.
- According to myth, Traprain Law is the hill from which Saint Teneu was thrown by her father, only to survive by divine intervention. She later gave birth to St Mungo, the founder of Glasgow.