Tigress handle from the Hoxne Hoard. (Photo: British Museum)

Nearly 20 years after its discovery in a Suffolk field, the Hoxne Hoard remains one of the largest caches of Roman gold and silver ever found anywhere in the Roman Empire. It was found on 16 November 1992 by Mr Eric Lawes, who was using his metal detector to find a lost hammer.

The small hole he excavated when his detector registered a strong signal turned out to be full of gold chains, silver spoons and coins, which he then loaded into two carrier bags, before wisely pausing for thought. His decision to stop digging and to report the find promptly to the landowner, the police, and the Suffolk Archaeology Society meant Jude Plouviez and her team from the Suffolk County Council Archaeology Service (SCCAS) were able to excavate the hoard scientifically, lifting whole blocks of material form the sandy Suffolk soil for detailed excavation under laboratory conditions.

Hoxne Hoard emerges from the earth. (Photo: Suffolk County Council)

They did so under conditions of great secrecy on 17 November 1992, but the story nevertheless got out. The Sun published news of the find on its front page on 19 November and offered its readers a metal detector as a prize for answering the question ‘who built Hadrian’s Wall? Hadrian, Barretts or Wimpey?’

Two years later, Kevin Forrest, also of the SCCAS, excavated an area around the find spot. Prehistoric pits and pottery, flints and postholes were found, as were Medieval coarse-wares and a possible boundary ditch. Of the late Roman period to which the hoard belongs, all that was found was a rectilinear feature interpreted as the burial site of the box that contained the treasure, plus one undated posthole that might have been contemporary with the hoard, and that might have held a post intended as a marker for the burial spot.

Thus, like the Mildenhall Treasure found in 1942, or like the more recently discovered Staffordshire Hoard, excavation of the find site has provided no clues as to why that particular spot was chosen for the burial of a wooden chest containing 29 pieces of gold jewellery, a dozen silver vessels, nearly 100 silver spoons and about 40 additional silver objects; not to mention a cache of 14,865 gold and silver coins from the late 4th and early 5th centuries, the latest of which, minted in AD 407-408, gives us the date after which the hoard must have been buried.

This date, perhaps, is what may be the clue as to why the hoard was buried.  Roman influence in Britain was coming to an end as soldiers left to defend the empire on mainland Europe;  it may well have been a period of turbulence and conflict.  Anyone fearful for their family’s wealth in a time of possible violent change may well have decided to play it safe and bury their valuables for safekeeping. However, no evidence of a Roman villa has been found in the immediate vicinity of the find spot. There are, however,  Roman dwellings  two miles to the north west at Scole, where the Roman road crosses the River Waveney, and five miles to the south west at Stoke Ash. Both settlements have been identified as possible locations of the Villa Faustini mentioned in the Antonine Itinerary, which names settlements and distances along the various roads of the Roman Empire.

(Photo: Suffolk County Council)

Peter Guest, author of The late Roman Gold and Silver Coins from the Hoxne Treasure notes that 4th- to 5th-century hoards are almost exclusively found in south-western and eastern England, and strikingly concentrated in East Anglia. He argues for ‘an entrenched cultural tradition of deliberately and permanently abandoning precious metal in the ground’. The people of this region are, after all, descended from pre-Roman tribes who routinely buried swords, shields, axes and other forms of metalwork as part of their religious practice — though, in the case of Bronze Age hoards, there does seem to be a much stronger correlation between the burial site and landscape features such as streams, springs, conspicuous rocks, and natural boundaries.

On the other hand, Catherine Johns, whose book The Hoxne Late Roman Treasure: Gold Jewellery And Silver Plate was published this year, suggests the hoard of treasure may have belonged to a single family and that it was buried for safekeeping. She argues that the chest contents were chosen because they were not in regular use. Some  were already of considerable age by the time they were buried, including two 100-year-old silver spoons, both heavily worn, and one having an ancient repair. Some seem to have been kept for their aesthetic or sentimental value, including rings that lack their gemstones and pendants without chains. The beautiful silver vessel handle, cast in the form of a tigress with niello stripes and a long tail, had long ceased to be of any practical value, having become detached from its parent vase. The four wonderful silver pepper pots were damaged in antiquity and had been dissassembled before burial. The overall sense is of a group of objects that possess value as bullion, but that might also be objects with sentimental significance — too fraught with meaning and memory to trade in for cash or to melt down and recast in new form, but not items of day-to-day use and importance to the owner. Even the relatively new objects in the hoard do not contradict this theory: new spoons and ladles were packed in tightly-bound bundles in a way that suggests they had never been used.

One of the treasures is the so-called Juliane bracelet, that bears the inscription UTERE FELIX DOMINA IULIANE (‘Use [this and be] happy, Lady Juliane’). Could this be the lady of the household? Was she living in fear for her family and her fortune in dangerous and uncertain times? One can only speculate.

This article is based on extracts taken from Chris Catling’s feature in CA 248.