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The Hoxne Late Roman Treasure: Gold Jewellery and Silver Plate
April 2011 (115.2)
The Hoxne Late Roman Treasure: Gold Jewellery and Silver Plate
By Catherine Johns. Pp. x + 278, figs. 289, tables 22. The British Museum Press, London 2010. $120. ISBN 978-0-7141-1817-8 (cloth).
In 1992, the search for a lost hammer in a Suffolk, United Kingdom, field culminated in one of the greatest discoveries of Late Roman treasure made in recent times. The Hoxne hoard contained more than 15,000 gold and silver coins as well as 400 or so pieces of gold and silver jewelery, plate, and other objects. All of this material (weighing some 60 lbs., or 27 kg) had been carefully packed in an oak chest and buried at some point after 407 C.E. (the date of the latest coin in the hoard).
The process of analyzing and publishing the hoard has long outlived the media furor that accompanied its discovery. The coins were published by Guest (The Late Roman Gold and Silver Coins from the Hoxne Treasure [London 2005]), and the volume under review completes the academic publication of this internationally significant find. It is a difficult volume to fault, and Johns (and each other contributor) displays a masterful grasp of the material. Primarily a catalogue of objects, there are also important discussions of gold jewelery (bracelets, necklaces, earrings, finger rings, and the famous body chain) and the silver plate. It is important to note that the “plate” is mainly silver spoons, ladles, and toilet instruments. The only vessels are five silver dishes and an important group of “pepper pots.” Supporting chapters discuss the epigraphy, metallurgical analysis, and Late Roman gold- and silversmithing. In general, the reporting is clear, concise, heavily referenced, and well illustrated with line drawings and black-and-white photographs. However, the complete absence of color plates is a major lapse. This criticism aside, it is clear that the volume will become a standard point of reference for any student of Late Antique gold and silver objects.
What I find most problematic about this volume is its seeming reticence to engage fully with interpreting the hoard and its social and economic context. Johns devotes a mere 10 pages to “Summaries and Speculations” (ch. 15) and rarely strays from that which can be empirically demonstrated. This is simultaneously laudable and deeply frustrating. In the coin volume, Guest contextualized the hoard in the context of Late Antique gift giving—an interpretation that is viewed with guarded skepticism in this volume (206). However, other speculations are possible.
Perhaps the most interesting undeveloped interpretation is the idea that the hoard may be (or contain elements of) a dowry/bride-price. Here the gold body chain, persuasively argued to be a bridal piece, is of great significance. Other objects are also relevant. The so-called empress pepper pot is now interpreted as a lady (82), possibly a materfamilias (85); and there is a bracelet inscribed to a “Lady Juliane,” and another bracelet decorated with a stylized male portrait, “perhaps the giver of the bracelet” (41). Even the antique handle from a silver amphora, surely retained for its aesthetic as well as pecuniary value (204), was a tigress and thus explicitly female in its symbolism. There is also a lack of any exclusively male objects in the hoard (204). Given the importance of dowries and wedding gifts in late antiquity, this theme could have been profitably explored in an attempt to contextualize the hoard.
The biographies of individual objects within the hoards also could have been discussed in a more obvious fashion (e.g., C. Gosden and Y. Marshall, “The Cultural Biography of Objects,” WorldArch 31  169–78). Johns adopts this approach with the body chain (28–9). She notes that a seemingly freshly struck solidus of Gratian (367–375 C.E.) was mounted in a worn pendant from a third-century necklace. This was then incorporated in the body chain, whose excellent condition suggests it was rarely worn. The biographies of the three finger rings are equally interesting (34). Two are old and worn, and all three lack their stones. How is this to be interpreted? Are the rings little more than scrap incorporated in the hoard for their gold weight? Were the stones removed because they were valuable semiprecious engraved stones? Or were these rings valuable antiques given as gifts, rich in symbolism and personal meaning, but altered by the removal of their stones to make them unwearable? Similarly, many of the spoons exhibit some wear, suggesting that they had been used and were not merely presentation pieces. In short, the summarizing of what was worn and unworn would have been a useful interpretive exercise.
The final point emerging from reading this volume is the almost complete lack of any archaeological or landscape context for the hoard. It was professionally excavated, and that has provided a wealth of information about the hoard’s deposition and its container (the oak chest). However, we know next to nothing about what was going on in the area between 300 and 500 C.E. (10). Was the hoard deposited in a cultivated landscape? Are there Roman buildings nearby? Where are the early Saxon settlements? All that we have on these important issues is appendix 1, a single page of notes on the site in its Roman and post-Roman context (259). A major fieldwork project was obviously beyond the remit of the British Museum and this publication, but for a find like this, non-invasive field survey of the parish, using surface collection, geophysical survey, and controlled metal detecting, would surely pay dividends and be looked on kindly by small grant-giving bodies.
To conclude, Johns and the other contributors have created a masterful catalogue of these objects, and they are to be congratulated for this substantial and most welcome achievement. The challenge now is to mine this rich seam and move beyond the empirical descriptions. Then we can engage with what the hoard has to tell us about society and economics during the fifth century, as Roman Britannia began its transition to Anglo-Saxon England.
McDonald Institute for Archaeological Research
The University of Cambridge
Cambridge CB2 3ER
Book Review of The Hoxne Late Roman Treasure: Gold Jewellery and Silver Plate, by Catherine Johns
Reviewed by James Gerrard
American Journal of Archaeology Vol. 115, No. 2 (April 2011)
Published online at www.ajaonline.org/book-review/904