Ancient Roman Silver Treasure Revealed

Accidentally discovered by a French farmer plowing his field near the village of Berthouville in rural Normandy in 1830, the spectacular hoard of gilt-silver statuettes and vessels known as the Berthouville Treasure was an ancient offering to the Gallo-Roman god Mercury. Following four years of meticulous conservation and research in the J. Paul Getty Museum’s Antiquities Conservation Department, the exhibition Ancient Luxury and the Roman Silver Treasure from Berthouville, on view at the Getty Villa November 19, 2014, to August 17, 2015, will present this unique collection of ancient silver in its full splendor and offer new insights about ancient art, technology, religion, and cultural interaction. The opulent cache – in the collection of the Cabinet des médailles (now the Department of Coins, Medals and Antiques) at the Bibliothèque nationale de France – is displayed in its entirety for the first time outside of Paris, together with precious gems, jewelry, and other Roman luxury objects from the Cabinet’s royal collections.

“Since 2010, this magnificent collection of silver objects has been undergoing extensive conservation and study at the Getty Villa, providing us a unique opportunity to examine the production of Roman luxury materials and seeing what this has to teach us about the art, culture and religion of Roman Gaul,” says Timothy Potts, director of the J. Paul Getty Museum.

While the treasure – consisting of about 90 silver objects weighing more than 50 pounds – was first discovered in 1830, it was not until 1861 and again in 1896 that the site was extensively surveyed and excavated, uncovering the foundations of a Gallo-Roman fanum, a square colonnaded precinct with two temples. One was dedicated to Mercury Canetonensis (of Canetonum), while the other was devoted to his mother Maia or his consort Rosmerta. A theater-shaped gathering space was also found nearby. The site survey did not reveal any evidence of an ancient settlement or cemetery in the immediate area, so it’s possible that Mercury’s sanctuary at Berthouville was a place of pilgrimage, perhaps visited during annual festivals.

The Roman god Mercury, after restoration.

The most impressive objects in the Berthouville Treasure bear Latin inscriptions stating that they were dedicated to Mercury by a Roman citizen named Quintus Domitius Tutus. Several of the vessels, profusely ornamented in high relief and then gilded, are recognized today as among the finest ancient Roman silver to survive. The elaborately decorated imagery of Tutus’s offerings, except for one ladle that was manufactured specifically for Mercury, feature Bacchic motifs and mythological scenes that are more appropriate to luxurious dining than religious observance. These items were probably presented to Mercury at Berthouville after initial use as private display silver. Subtle differences in their dedicatory inscriptions may indicate that they were given to the god over the course of a few years, again suggesting that it was perhaps offered during annual festivals.

Pair of cups with centaurs, after restoration.

Soon after its discovery, the treasure was acquired by the Bibliothèque nationale de France in Paris where it was cleaned and the disassociated parts of several vessels were reassembled. Since the treasure had been buried over centuries, many of the objects were heavily encrusted and the ancient solder that had held together their components often became separated. The nineteenth-century restoration included the removal of some of the tarnish, accretions, and harder encrustations, and left some deep scratches. Some of the corrosion was so tenacious that it had to be left in place, and a number of objects were restored with materials that were commonplace in the day, including solder, pine resin, and beeswax.

Offering Bowl with Bacchus, Hercules, and Coins.

In December 2010 the entire treasure, as well as four unrelated late antique silver platters or missoria from the Cabinet’s collection, arrived at the Getty Villa for a comprehensive conservation treatment. The four-year project focused not only on restoring the works but on historical research, careful study, and meticulous cleaning. This treatment has revealed much of the original gilding, additional inscriptions, and valuable evidence for ancient production techniques as well as nineteenth-century methods of restoration.

The four missoria, on view in the final section of the exhibition, were luxury objects in Late Antiquity. They were primarily intended to display the wealth, status, and cultural aspirations of their owners. The two largest platters are the famed “Shield of Scipio” (found in the Rhone near Avignon in 1636) and “Shield of Hannibal” (found in the Alps in 1714). The shape, scale, and imagery of these two platters led early scholars to erroneously identify them as votive shields of historical generals – the Roman Scipio Africanus and his rival, the Carthaginian Hannibal.

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Staffordshire Anglo-Saxon treasure hoard valued at £3.3m

The largest and arguably most beautiful hoard of Anglo-Saxon gold ever found in Britain has been valued at nearly £3.3m by a panel of experts, a reward that will be shared between the amateur metal detectorist who found it and the Staffordshire farmer in whose pasture it lay hidden for 1,300 years.

Professor Norman Palmer, chair of the treasure valuation committee, whose members pored over 1,800 gold, silver and jewelled objects in a day-long session at the British Museum, said: “It was breathtaking – we all agreed that it was not only a challenge but a privilege to be dealing with material of such quantity, quality and beauty. It was hard to stop our imaginations running away with us.”

Museums in Staffordshire will now scramble to raise the money – £3.285m to be precise – which will be paid as compensation to Terry Herbert, the metal detectorist, and Fred Johnson, the farmer.

Johnson was magnificently underwhelmed by his good fortune this morning. “Right now I’m just trying to get over the flu, and money is the last thing on my mind. I hope it’ll not make any difference to me. I won’t be putting in a swimming pool anyway, this country is wet enough already.

“I’ve been a millionaire for years anyway,” he chuckled wheezily, “isn’t that what they always say about farmers?”

Johnson, who paid his first visit to London to see the pieces installed in a temporary display at the British Museum, and bought a suit for the occasion, is in awe of the extraordinary objects that poured out of his field. “Anybody would have to be in wonder at the workmanship, and the years all that history has been lying in the ground with me driving across it.”

Some had speculated that the hoard could be worth many times the sum eventually settled on by the valuation committee. But Johnson was content: “A friend of mine came round and said another hoard was worth £12m, and mine was bigger so it might be worth more – but I said I hope to God it ain’t, I wouldn’t want that responsibility.”

He added: “I’ve met people through this I would never have come upon in all my life. It’s been a wonderful experience.”

Palmer said valuing the hoard was a unique experience in his 13 years as chair of the committee.

“We dealt with masses of paperwork before the meeting, and solicited four independent expert valuations in advance, which is unprecedented in my experience. When we met we were driven by two lodestars, scrupulous accuracy obviously, and a determination not to allow the process to drag on and on but to arrive at a figure which would be acceptable to all parties. I don’t think they would have been happy if it had dragged on beyond Christmas.”

Herbert found the first pieces of gold last July, some lying just below the surface or tangled in grassroots in the field, which Johnson had ploughed deeper than usual the previous season. When he reported the find a small army of archaeologists and forensic investigators hit the field, giving the cover story that police were investigating a murder.

They recovered box after box of exquisitely worked gold, including a cheek flap from a helmet, dozens of pommel and hilt decorations from swords, a gold processional cross and a cryptic inscription from the Bible on a strip of gold. Archaeologists will be poring over the find for years, and have already said it will rewrite the history of Anglo-Saxon England, and the pugnacious kingdom of Mercia where it was found.

When the find was announced in September, the news went round the world. Some mud-caked pieces went on display for a fortnight at Birmingham city museum and people queued for up to four hours to see them, with the museum having to double its opening hours. Highlights of the collection now on display at the British Museum have created the same buzz of excitement.

“There was some speculation that because there was just so much in this hoard it might drive down its value,” Palmer said. “But others of us held the opposite opinion, that because it had created so much excitement, if it were ever to go to auction, people who wouldn’t normally be interested would want to own a piece of it, driving up the value.

“We are satisfied that we have arrived at a value which is both fair, and reflects the extraordinary interest and importance of this hoard.”

The British Museum has launched a rapid-response book on the hoard, written by Kevin Leahy, the archaeologist who spent weeks cataloguing all 1,800 pieces as they came into the Birmingham museum – with his wife weighing them and labelling them with cloakroom tickets – and Roger Bland, head of the portable antiquities scheme, which encourages metal detectorists such as Herbert to report all their archaeological finds. One pound from each copy sold will be donated to the appeal to acquire the treasure for local museums, to keep the extraordinary objects on display in the county whose history they have transformed.

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Staffordshire Hoard – huge Anglo-Saxon gold hoard found!

some of the hoard pieces

The UK’s largest haul of Anglo-Saxon treasure has been discovered buried beneath a field in Staffordshire.

Experts say the collection of 1,500 gold and silver pieces, which may date to the 7th Century, is unparalleled in size and worth “a seven figure sum”.

It has been declared treasure by South Staffordshire coroner Andrew Haigh, meaning it belongs to the Crown.

Terry Herbert, who found it on farmland using a metal detector, said it “was what metal detectorists dream of”.

It may take more than a year for it to be valued.

The Staffordshire hoard contains about 5kg of gold and 2.5kg of silver, making it far bigger than the Sutton Hoo discovery in 1939 when 1.5kg of Anglo-Saxon gold was found near Woodbridge in Suffolk.

Leslie Webster, former keeper at the British Museum’s Department of Prehistory and Europe, said: “This is going to alter our perceptions of Anglo-Saxon England as radically, if not more so, as the Sutton Hoo discoveries.

“(It is) absolutely the equivalent of finding a new Lindisfarne Gospels or Book of Kells.”

The Book of Kells and Lindisfarne Gospels are intricately illuminated manuscripts of the four New Testament Gospels dating from the 9th and 8th Centuries.

‘Just unbelievable’

helmet cheek plateMr Herbert, 55, of Burntwood in Staffordshire, who has been metal detecting for 18 years, came across the hoard as he searched land belonging to a farmer friend over five days in July. The exact location has not been disclosed.

“I have this phrase that I say sometimes; ‘spirits of yesteryear take me where the coins appear’, but on that day I changed coins to gold,” he said.

“I don’t know why I said it that day but I think somebody was listening and directed me to it.

“This is what metal detectorists dream of, finding stuff like this. But the vast amount there is just unbelievable.”

BBC correspondent Nick Higham said the hoard would be valued by the British Museum and the money passed on to Mr Herbert and the landowner.

A total of 1,345 items have been examined by experts, although the list includes 56 clods of earth which have been X-rayed and are known to contain further metal artefacts.

This means the total number of items found is likely to rise to about 1,500.

staffordshire hoard gold strip with inscriptionFollowing the initial find, Alex Jones, director of Birmingham Archaeology and his colleagues were invited to excavate the site, Birmingham University said.

Mr Jones said it was fantastic news for the region and raised the importance of heritage research.

“Being a partner in one of the most exciting archaeological discoveries of our time is something we can all be proud of,” he said.

Experts have so far established that there were at least 650 items of gold in the haul, weighing more than 5kgs (11lb), and 530 silver objects totalling more than 1kg (2.2lb) in weight.

Copper alloy, garnets and glass objects were also discovered at the undisclosed site.

Duncan Slarke, finds liaison officer for Staffordshire, was the first professional to see the hoard which contains warfare paraphernalia, including sword pommel caps and hilt plates inlaid with precious stones.

He said he was “virtually speechless” when he saw the items.

“I saw boxes full of gold, items exhibiting the very finest Anglo-Saxon workmanship,” he added.

Roger Bland, head of portable antiquities and treasure at the British Museum, said: “The most we can say is, I think we’re fairly confident it is likely to be a seven-figure sum.”

‘Truly remarkable’

sword fittingThe collection is currently being kept in secure storage at Birmingham Museum and Art Gallery but a selection of the items are to be displayed at the museum from Friday until 13 October.

Dr Kevin Leahy, who has been cataloguing the find for the Portable Antiquities Scheme, said it was “a truly remarkable collection”.

He said it had been found in the heartland of the Anglo-Saxon kingdom of Mercia.

“All the archaeologists who’ve worked with it have been awestruck,” he added.

“It’s been actually quite scary working on this material to be in the presence of greatness.”

He said the most striking feature of the find was that it was almost totally weapon fittings with no feminine objects such as dress fittings, brooches or pendants.

“Swords and sword fittings were very important in the Anglo-Saxon period,” Dr Leahy added.

“It looks like a collection of trophies, but it is impossible to say if the hoard was the spoils from a single battle or a long and highly successful military career.

“We also cannot say who the original, or the final, owners were, who took it from them, why they buried it or when.

“It will be debated for decades.”

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UPDATE [more images]

Visit Staffordshire Hoard official website, as well as this FLICKR photo set, for more images and info !

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Celtic hoard found in Netherlands

celtic-coinCoins are often used as “index fossils” by archaeologists. An index fossil is a fossil with which paleontologists are familiar that is also known to have lived during a specific time period and in a certain environment. For this reason an index fossil can help date an entire paleontological dig site. Coins found at archaeological dig sites can often help date the site, identify past trade routes, identify rulers, suggest political borders, and even suggest the level of technology available in the area. Due to inscriptions and iconography coins are often the only artifact found at an archaeological site that can “speak” to us.

On Nov. 13 an important find of 109 Celtic coins of the Eburones tribe found in the Netherlands was announced through the Associated Press. According to AP information, this is one of three important hoard finds of coins issued by this tribe. The other two finds, according to AP information, were discovered in Belgium and Germany in areas not too distant geographically from the Netherlands.

The most recent find was discovered by metal detector hobbyist Paul Curfs, who was sweeping a corn field in Maastricht, a city in the southern part of the Netherlands. Curfs is not a coin collector. He discovered the coins in the spring of 2008. The find is only now being announced publicly.

In the AP story Curfs described his find of the first coin, saying: “It was golden and had a little horse on it – I had no idea what I had found.”

Curfs posted an image of the gold coin on the Internet on what is described as a web forum. Someone advised him the coin was rare. This prompted Curfs to return to the same field, where he next discovered a coin he described as, “It looked totally different – silver, and saucer-shaped.”

By the time Curfs and several fellow hobbyists were done they had uncovered a total of 39 gold and 70 silver ancient Celtic coins. Curfs notified Maastricht city officials of the discovery, then worked with professional archaeologists to investigate the find site further.

Specific details important to coin collectors were not immediately available, however according to the AP story, “Nico Roymans, the archaeologist who led the academic investigation of the find, believes the gold coins in the cache were minted by a tribe called the Eburones that [Julius] Caesar claimed to have wiped out in 53 B.C. after they conspired with other groups in an attack that killed 6,000 Roman soldiers.”

The Euburones were a Germanic tribe living primarily in what in now Belgium. In 54 BC the Eburones revolted against local Roman occupation through Euburones tribal chieftains Ambiorix and Catuvoleus. Ambiorix initially offered safe passage to the Romans while other tribes elsewhere in Gaul were in revolt against the Romans. The Romans, commanded by Quintus Titurius Sabinus and Lucius Aurunculeius Cotta, agreed. The Eburones treacherously ambushed the Romans, most of whom were killed or committed suicide rather than allow themselves to be captured by the Euburones.

By 49 BC Roman general Julius Caesar had crushed the revolt, defeating both Celts and Germanic tribes living in Gaul (Gaul being comprised of primarily of what is now modern France). Caesar then defied the Roman Senate by crossing the Rubicon River and marching on the city of Rome, crossing the Rubicon being considered treason since that river marked the northernmost boundary of the Roman Republic proper. By this act Caesar initiated a Roman civil war that would end the Roman Republic and usher in the Roman Empire The Eburones had resisted Caesar’s conquest of Gaul and were rewarded for their resistance with genocide at the hands of the Romans.

Roymans believes the gold and silver coin hoard recently found in the Netherlands were produced by Celtic tribes further north, suggesting in his opinion the coins may represent cooperation among the various Celtic tribes in the war against Caesar’s Roman legions. Roymans disclosed that both the gold and silver coins depict triple spirals on the obverse, a common Celtic symbol.

At the time this article was being written no value had yet been placed on the hoard. The hoard discovered in Belgium was of similar size and has been estimated at about 175,000 euros (about $220,000 US) in value.

Curfs has retained 11 of the coins, lending them to the city of Maastricht on what has been described as a long-term basis. His coins have been on display at the Centre Ceramique Museum in Maastricht.

The farmer on whose land the hoard was discovered sold his interest in the coins to Maastricht for an undisclosed sum.

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