Scotland's Early Silver

National Museums Scotland

Treasures from the Glenmorangie Research Project at National Museums Scotland

Unearthing the past
The Early Medieval or Early Historic period (around AD 300 – 900) is a very important part of Scotland’s past, coming immediately before the birth of the earliest political entity known as ‘Scotland’, and yet it is not a well-known period of Scotland’s history. Since 2008, archaeologists at National Museums Scotland, funded by The Glenmorangie Company, have successfully uncovered hidden mysteries from this period and enhanced current archaeological knowledge.
The power of silver
Precious metals underpinned the emergence of early medieval kingdoms across Europe by providing the raw material used to make prestige objects. While some places favoured gold, in Scotland, silver was the most important precious metal for over six hundred years. Silver arrived during Roman times and this new and exotic material quickly became the most prestigious material for displaying power. It remained important across the period, being made into large silver chains, brooches, and religious objects.
Buried treasure
Here you can find out more about three silver hoards investigated through the Glenmorangie Research Project.
Traprain Law treasure
Buried around the middle of the 5th century AD, this hoard of Roman silver from Traprain Law in East Lothian is the largest known from outside the Roman Empire.

Traprain Law (or hill) has shown evidence of occupation since 1000 BC.

In 1919, archaeologists excavating the Law discovered a stunning hoard of buried treasure made up of over 250 fragments of objects which have been cut up either for exchange as bullion or for melting down and recycling into new objects.

Coins in the hoard date from the early 5th century AD, the dying days of Roman Britain when the province of Britannia was under attack from all sides.

Many of the fragments from the hoard were originally pieces of exquisite aristocratic silver tableware. However, these were not used in Scotland – instead the hoard of hacked-up silver is likely to have been given as a diplomatic gift or in payment for mercenary activity.

The Romans used bribery to try and keep their borders peaceful and secure across Europe. It is possible that they gave this great treasure as a bribe to a friendly native chief to prevent attacks south of Hadrian’s Wall into England, which they still occupied.

Amongst the Treasure is a wide range of vessels, including items decorated with characters from classical mythology side by side with others featuring Biblical scenes and Christian symbols.

Also discovered were two small pieces from one of the biggest silver dishes in the whole of the Roman world, which has now been digitally reconstructed as part of the Glenmorangie Research Project into Early Medieval Scotland.

There are more personal objects, such as jewellery and buckles, as well as spoons and a strainer, some with Christian symbols, including the first two letters of Christ’s name in Greek, ‘Chi -Rho’.

Amongst several fittings decorated with animal motifs there are handles in the shape of panthers, from a large wine flagon – panthers were sacred to Bacchus, god of wine.

There are also pieces of a very rare openwork silver cage which fitted around a glass cup or bucket.

The people of Traprain Law accepted gifts of Roman silver bullion, melted them down and made jewellery from them, such as the heavy neck-chain, not part of the treasure but also found at Traprain Law.

Norrie's Law hoard
This early medieval silver, unearthed in Fife during the 19th century, is one of the largest Pictish hoards ever to be found.

One of the largest Pictish hoards ever to be found, estimates suggest that the Norrie’s Law hoard originally contained almost 12kg of silver. Most of the hoard was lost soon after its discovery, and less than a kilogram survives today.

Made up of 170 pieces, the hoard mainly contains small pieces of hacked-up objects, cut down for their silver bullion value.

Four complete early medieval silver objects from the hoard also survive – a plaque decorated with Pictish symbols, a large handpin, a spiral finger ring, and a large brooch with a twisted hoop.

The Norrie’s Law hoard is very unusual and important. In early medieval Scotland, silver was the most important precious metal, used to make prestigious and impressive objects such as brooches and chains. The Norrie’s Law hoard tells us about the use and reuse of this precious resource – about the source of the raw material (late Roman silver, such as plate and coins) and how it was recycled and remade into new types of powerful objects.

The Norrie’s Law hoard is mostly made up of hacksilver – parts of objects that have been deliberately cut up ready to be traded or exchanged, or melted down and made into something new. Until recently, this was the only hoard of its kind from Scotland – other hacksilver hoards, such as the one found at Traprain Law, contained only Roman silver.

Most of the Norrie’s Law silver is early medieval, though it does contain a handful of late Roman fragments, including part of a spoon.

Many of the early medieval objects in the hoard are rare or even unique. This symbol-decorated plaque is one of its kind. The brooches with twisted hoops and fragments of spiral bracelets are very rare, as is a mystery object decorated with snail spirals hammered into high relief.

Because the hoard was found during the 19th century, it lacks the kinds of information that modern archaeological excavation of the findspot could provide. The only way to date the burial of the hoard is to examine the objects themselves. Ongoing research by the Glenmorangie Research project is beginning to suggest the hoard was buried around the 6th century AD.

St Ninian's Isle treasure
This fascinating hoard of treasure was discovered during excavations on St Ninian’s Isle, Shetland, in 1958. 

The hoard consists of 28 silver and silver-gilt objects, all decorated, made during the second half of the eighth century. Most of the objects are considered to be Pictish, which means they would have been made and used in the eastern and northern areas of Scotland.

The treasure was discovered on 4 July 1958 by a schoolboy called Douglas Coutts, who was taking part in excavations of the medieval church that had once existed on the island. Coutts found the treasure in a wooden box, buried under a slab marked with a cross. It is generally assumed that the treasure was hidden beneath the floor of an earlier chapel.

The treasure may have belonged to a local religious community, or it may be the valued items of an aristocratic family. The pieces are not all of the same date, and the collection may have been put together over several generations. Without access to safe deposit boxes, burying your valued items in the ground at times of stress was probably the best option.

There are seven feasting bowls and a more elaborate hanging bowl, along with a spoon decorated with a dog’s head and a curved prong that was perhaps used for eating shellfish.

It seems likely that the decorative elements discovered in the hoard were removed from weapons before burial. They may all be from swords. Representations on Pictish stones show that swords were a clear symbol of rank.

There are also twelve brooches in the treasure. In early historic Scotland, brooches such as these did much more than act as cloak fasteners. The size and quality of the decoration signified the wearer’s status and position in society. The number and quality of the brooches found strengthens the suggestion that the treasure came from an aristocratic household.

The treasure may have been buried at the end of the 8th or beginning of the 9th century AD, when Viking raids on Scotland first began. Alternatively, as the objects show signs of significant use, they may have been hidden centuries later.

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With thanks to The Glenmorangie Company.
Text and images © National Museums Scotland.

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