This huge hoard of hack silver is still revealing details of life in Roman Scotland - almost 200 years after it was first found in Aberdeenshire

By Ben Miller | 20 June 2016

The field where a Roman hoard was originally discovered during the 19th century has revealed a far vaster collection of artefacts - including evidence of the elite

A photo of various silver artefacts from the Gaulcross Roman hoard in Aberdeenshire
© Antiquity / National Museums Scotland
Little could be guessed of the stone circles which once stood at Gaulcross, a heavily farmed arable field in rural Aberdeenshire where two history teams united three years ago.

Two days into their work, metal detectorist Alistair McPherson – a colluder in the University of Aberdeen’s Northern Picts Projects and National Museums Scotland research – unearthed three late examples of siliquae, the thin, gnarled silver coins minted by the Romans. He also found bits of folded hack silver, a silver strap-end and part of a silver bracelet.

A race against time began: the field was due to be ploughed and planted within a week, so the geophysical survey was extended over more than 31,000 square metres of the land. Not much turned up, but more metal detecting allowed a significant scatter of finds to be plotted, with a large trench opened over the most concentrated area of artefacts.

A photo of various silver artefacts from the Gaulcross Roman hoard in Aberdeenshire
© Antiquity / National Museums Scotland

Pre-Viking Hack Silver

Eventually, a ton of new discoveries surfaced, ranging from military equipment to personal ornaments and showing the Gaulcross hoard to be far larger than the three discoveries made in 1838. It also holds the most northern pre-Viking hack silver hoard in Europe.

“The new fieldwork at Gaulcross has entirely changed our knowledge of the scale and character of this hoard”, says Dr Gordon Noble, who led the work. “We have confirmed that the three surviving items were part of a larger hack silver hoard similar to the only other comparable hoard known in Scotland: the Norrie’s Law hoard from Fife.

“There are also clipped siliquae – a British phenomenon that involves removing the edges of fourth-century Roman silver coins in order to stretch out increasingly diminishing supplies of silver during the fifth century AD, when coinage was no longer being imported into Britain.”

Two stone circles, originally standing in the surrounding Ley Farm field, are said to have been “ruthlessly” removed in 1837 by James Lawtie, who started improving the land after gaining tenancy of the farm. Some of the stones were blown up with dynamite.

a photo of the decoration on the head of a silver pin brooch
© Antiquity / National Museums Scotland
John Stuart, who gave the first account of the hoard, reported only one remaining monolith in 1867, with the silver hoard found on the southern side of the northern circle, near boulders and “pins and brooches”.

Stuart illustrated a hand-pin (resembling a clenched fist), a spiral bracelet and a length of silver chain from the field, all given to the county’s Banff Museum by landowner Sir Robert Abercromby. All of them are on display at the national museum in Edinburgh.

High Status objects

“Some of the objects in the Gaulcross hoard were themselves almost certainly connected to elites,” says Dr Noble. “Items such as silver hand-pins and silver bracelets are uncommon finds. These were clearly high-status objects that would have belonged to some of the most powerful members of post-Roman society.

“If the hoards were connected to wealthy post-Roman communities then that wealth was accumulated and buried, but never reclaimed. Some hoards in the Roman Iron Age have been interpreted as gifts to the gods, and the collection of second- to fourth-century AD Roman material found at Covesea Cave, on the Moray coast, is also best interpreted in this light.”

Digging for sand at the base of a large prehistoric cairn, a labourer found the Norrie’s Law hoard in Fife in 1819. Only 750g of its 12kg of silver remains, with the majority immediately dispersed, sold and melted down. But its treasures, including spiral finger-rings and an inscribed late Roman spoon bowl, are only growing in historical importance.

A photo of a pin brooch with decoration at the top
© Antiquity / National Museums Scotland

Pictish symbols

“The most remarkable object from the Norrie’s Law find is the plaque decorated with Pictish symbols that are more usually found on standing-stone monuments across northern and eastern Scotland,” says Dr Noble.

“The symbols are as yet undeciphered, but they probably mark personal identities and may have been a form of communication, serving a similar purpose to contemporary inscribed stones using ogam and Latin in Ireland and Wales.”

Parcels of silver and coins clasped between bracelet fragments strongly suggest that weights of silver could have been forms of payment – either between indigenous elites, soldiers and the Roman army or people trying to bribe native war band leaders during the late 4th or early 5th centuries.

For his part, Dr Noble hopes important discoveries and residual clues at find spots will be given the same legal protection as in situ monuments. As important as metal-detecting is, he says it remains “untrained and random”, forcing archaeologists to be reactive.

“In this difficult period for heritage management, with budgets and funding being constantly reduced, it is often a struggle to find the resources to recover the vital contextual information to understand these new discoveries,” he observes.

“These treasures on public display often lack detailed contextual evidence to help more fully interpret their significance, but in many cases, vital information may await rediscovery.” Detailed analysis is now taking place on the latest finds.

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Three places to see Aberdeenshire's history in

Brander Museum, Huntly
Visit this recently refurbished museum showing civic regalia, an extensive collection of communion tokens, displays on Huntly textile industry and Huntly-born author George MacDonald, 19th century arms and armour from Sudan and archaeological finds from Huntly Castle.

Fyvie Castle, near Turriff
Each tower of this magnificent Scottish Baronial fortress is traditionally associated with one of the castle’s five successive families – Preston, Meldrum, Seton, Gordon and Forbes-Leith. You can see their influences today among the medieval stones and the lavish Edwardian interiors, and imagine what castle life must have been like for the families and their royal guests – among them Robert the Bruce and Charles I.

Provost Skene's House, Aberdeen
Dating from 1545, Provost Skene’s House now houses an attractive series of period room settings, recalling the elegant furnishings of earlier times. Visitors can see an intriguing series of religious paintings in the Painted Gallery, changing fashions in the Costume Gallery and displays of local interest, coins and archaeology on the top floor.
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