martes, 29 de abril de 2014

A Roman hoard from the end of empire (Netherlands)

Dutch archaeologists have recently completed the rescue excavation of a unique treasure hoard dating to the beginning of the 5th century AD, from a field in Limburg. The hoard partially consists of a combination of gold coins and pieces of silver tableware which had been deliberately cut up (hacksilver).
The complete hoard was shown at a press conference on Friday, April 25 in Limburg Museum (Venlo) where archaeologists highlighted the significance of the find as a key piece of evidence for our understanding of the final phase of Roman rule in the Netherlands, around the year AD 411. Placing the treasure into perspective within the political and military chaos at the time, why was the precious and richly decorated Roman silver tableware cut into pieces and buried?

Discovery of the hoard

In 1990, a farmer from Echt working in his field picked up two gold coins. However, one of the coins fell out of his hands and despite frantically searching, he couldn’t locate it. At the start of 2014, he took his nephew to the original find spot and using a metal detector they were able to find five more gold coins. The new finds were reported and archaeologists carried out a rescue excavation where they located the pit in which the treasure had originally been placed. The hoard consists of:

Archaeological and historical context

The treasure appears to have been buried deliberately, possibly at a time of crisis, for religious purposes, or most probably even a combination of both. It is worth noting the find location: on an uninhabited place at the end of a spit of land surrounded by a marshy lowland. This may then indicate a ritual burial, for if the treasure was hidden for security reasons only, then one would expect an easily recognisable location within the owner’s settlement.
The date for the end of Roman rule in the Rhineland is often placed around AD 406, with Germanic tribes such as the Vandals, Alans, Suevi and smaller groups crossing the Rhine in force near Mainz and penetrating deep into Gaul. However the lower Rhine region seems less affected by this barbarian incursion and remained within Roman influence for far longer. The Roman authorities were never able to eject or destroy these tribes, most of whom eventually settled in Spain and North Africa.
According to the Byzantine historian Zosimus, Constantine III tried to re-secure the entire Roman Rhine frontier against Germanic invaders. But the veracity of this report is called into question by archaeologists who are able to show a systematic restoration of fortifications at the beginning of the 5th century, while the lower Rhine limes has little evidence of this work.
However, the study of the gold circulation in what is now the Netherlands indicates that Constantine III did carry out serious activities to protect the borders of the Roman Empire, but not just by building forts. The historians Orosius and Zosimus tells us that Constantine III solved the problem of the invading Germanic groups by liberal use of the money bag along with developing close alliances to Germanic warlords on both sides of the Rhine. He bought their military support and used this method of bribery for the defence of the border area against future raids and to strengthen the army in Gaul.
The Echt hoard would therefore have belonged to a Germanic officer in Roman service – part of a network of these warlords in the pay of Constantine III as a reward for services rendered, and must have been buried shortly after AD 411 in the crisis that emerged after the defeat of Constantine in southern Gaul; the new emperor Constantius imprisoned Constantine and had him beheaded on his way to Ravenna in either August or September 411.
This hoard sits within a rich horizon of gold and silver artefacts and coins from the beginning of the 5th century, deposited both North and South of the Rhine in the Netherlands. These include treasure finds with only coins (Obbicht, Blerick, Venlo), with a combination of coins and neck rings (Beilen, Velp-1), with only gold neck rings (Olst, Rhenen, Velp-2), with coins and a helmet (Kessel), and now with a combination of coins and hacksilver.

Who and why?

The Echt hoard is the first of its kind to be discovered in the Netherlands. The hacksilver comes from various pieces of tableware. One fragment contains an engraving of a gold plated horse and the rider holds a spear in his right hand. The rearing horse appears to be trampling a lion and this would be part of a much larger plate depicting hunting scenes. Based on the edge curve of this platter it would have measured over 70 cm in diameter and have a weight of 2.25kg.
This silver tableware was an important status symbol in the late Roman Empire often acting as an important gift from the State in diplomatic dealings with local authorities, and also with tribal leaders (perhaps even client kings) who lay on the edge of Empire, such as the famous treasure of haksilver from Traprain Law in Southern Scotland.
The Notitia Dignitatum (an important national document on the organisation of the Roman State apparatus around 400AD) mentions the existence of special officials responsible for carrying out these payments on behalf of the Emperor; their insignia shows bags of gold coins as well as large silver bowls filled with gold pieces. So, with such an Imperial treasure being a gift item of the highest level, how can the cutting of such precious items be understood?
Hacksilver reflects the economic and military crisis of the late Roman Empire. The early 5th century would have been a major drain of gold and silver from the Roman Centre to the barbaric periphery as part of desperate efforts to defend the border and help to recruit troops. There emerged in this chaotic phase a large shortage of gift items from precious metals for rewarding Germanic war leaders and their followers. In this context, the practice developed of cutting up expensive tableware to pay the Germanic soldiers, for whom, ultimately, it represented only the silver value. The tableware may have been given complete to the Germanic leaders and they cut it up in order to be able to distribute the pieces to their soldiers.
The Echt hoard is a find with a special story and it represents a unique document for the final period of Roman rule in the Netherlands. The fact that the complete hoard could be salvaged through a full excavation means that the context was not lost. The concentration of gold hoards from this period seems especially connected to the frantic attempts of Emperor Constantine III to maintain a grip on the border defence in the lower Rhine region. However, in hindsight, the end of the Roman Empire was, by this time, a forgone conclusion.

Source: Past Horizons:

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