Ex­hi­bi­tion cel­e­brates Scot­tish sil­ver

The Sunday Post (Dundee) - - Relax -

What’s the ex­hi­bi­tion about and how long has it taken to put to­gether?

It tells of the first thou­sand years of sil­ver in Scot­land, when it was the most im­por­tant pre­cious metal in the coun­try. There has been a full year of de­sign­ing, or­gan­is­ing and writ­ing the ac­com­pa­ny­ing book. It com­bines new re­search we’ve done on 19th Cen­tury finds as well as from the past few years.

When did sil­ver first come to Scot­land?

Al­though we have our own de­posits of sil­ver ore, they weren’t ex­ploited un­til much later, so the first sil­ver ar­rives with the Ro­man army around AD75.

And what was it used for?

In ef­fect it was part of Ro­man for­eign pol­icy – they were try­ing to buy off peo­ple be­yond their bor­ders. In­ter­est­ingly, al­though they also had gold, which they knew was more valu­able and used else­where, they didn’t use that here. There are only a hand­ful of gold Ro­man ob­jects in Scot­land. We think it’s be­cause the fron­tier in Bri­tain was a bit less trou­ble­some so they didn’t think they needed such pres­ti­gious metal.

So, it was bribes re­ally?

Ab­so­lutely – or gifts if you pre­fer–totry­to­get­the in­hab­i­tants of Iron Age Scot­land on­side. They were given piles of coins they couldn’t spend, be­cause they didn’t use money, but they were shiny and new and a good way of show­ing off.

What was the next stage?

From about the 3rd Cen­tury on­wards those who got sil­ver started melt­ing it down and mak­ing their own ob­jects. It was from what’s called hack­sil­ver, dishes and plates that the Ro­man Em­pire chopped up for its bul­lion value. They made mas­sive sil­ver neck chains which weighed up to 3kg or about 10 pounds – that’s twice as heavy as the Crown of Scot­land. They were worn choker-style round the neck so it was doable, but ob­vi­ously not very com­fort­able. Only nine of those sil­ver chains sur­vive and we’ll have them all dis­played to­gether for the first time.

How wide­spread was sil­ver in Scot­land?

It was only in cer­tain parts un­til the 6th to the 8th Cen­turies. It shifts then from be­ing pres­ti­gious items to show your im­por­tance to pretty much just be­ing broaches more com­monly avail­able.

We’ve got some gor­geous ex­am­ples. The thing was that Ro­man sil­ver was re­cy­cled time af­ter time over 500 years. Each time there was the temp­ta­tion to stretch it a lit­tle fur­ther by put­ting in cop­per al­loy. So we’ve got things from the 8th Cen­tury that look green be­cause they’re 50% cop­per.

What about the Vik­ings?

That’s the last bit of our story. They ar­rive from the late 8th to 10th Cen­tury with the first new sil­ver since the Ro­man pe­riod. That’s a lot of arm­lets and in­gots. There was also Is­lamic coinage and we have a few of those. Some of the sil­ver was cut up for trad­ing and to buy slaves.

Where did your finds come from?

Some were found in the 19th Cen­tury when stone cir­cles were be­ing dy­na­mited to clear fields for cul­ti­va­tion. But many other iconic sil­ver ob­jects in the 18th Cen­tury were melted down for the bul­lion. So this re­cy­cling has con­tin­ued right from Ro­man times.

And more re­cent?

One of the most re­mark­able sil­ver finds is the Dair­sie hoard. It was a stash of Ro­man hack­sil­ver dis­cov­ered in Fife in 2014 by Livingston teenager David Hall, who was us­ing his metal de­tec­tor. It was his first proper find. There were four plates and bowls chopped up and passed to an Iron Age tribe.


Scot­land’s Early Sil­ver runs from Oc­to­ber 13 to Fe­bru­ary 25 at the Na­tional Mu­seum of Scot­land in Ed­in­burgh. Visit nms.ac.uk

Some of the sil­ver ob­jects which will be on dis­play at the ex­hibit

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