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News and stories from the world of Archaeology and its related disciplines

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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