The Treasure that is Traprain Law

Traprain Law, some five miles east of Haddington and less than two miles south-west of East Linton is, to most of us passing on the nearby A1, just another hill towering over the flat landscapes of East Lothian: but nothing could be further from the truth. Traprain is not just any old hill but one of the most important sites in Scotland with a history dating from at least the Bronze Age, around 1500 BC, and continuously occupied for more than 1,000 years to the 6th century AD.

For anyone interested in our ancient history it would be improper not to take a look at Dumpelder to give the hill it’s old name. Dumpelder, from the Brythonic, Dyn (Din) Pelydr, ‘Hill of Shafts’, is the original and correct title for a hill where the name was vandalised by a silly cartographer 200 years ago when it was named Traprain, giving reference to a small settlement nearby. Traprain itself is from the same language, possibly through more modern Welsh, tra pren, ‘the wooden town’. Dumpelder was the capital of the Gododdin people, otherwise known as the Votadini (a Roman expression) for centuries before they made Dyn Eidyn (Edinburgh) their headquarters.

Legend and myth abound at Dumpelder from where St. Kentigern’s (St. Mungo) mother, Thenew, was banished by her father, Kentigern’s grandfather, King Loth or Lot, the man who reputedly gave name to Lothian; her crime was to become pregnant out of wedlock. Thenew managed to survive her calamity and was able to trudge to Aberlady where she boarded an empty boat in the Firth of Forth before drifting, first to the May Island then being swept westward to Culross where her son, Mungo, first saw the light of day. Kentigern is thought never to have met his father nor his grandfather.

The history, legend and myth of Traprain Law are well documented, including the great defensive walls, the fort, the dwellings where the people lived, the burial sites and how they worshipped throughout their lives. Their great adventure through life was enacted around the great whale-back hill, standing at over 700ft. and they have left us all a great story to tell.

Hill dwellers of ancient Britain believed very much in fairies and many lovely stories have evolved on that subject since those days, Thomas the Rhymer made sure of that. One such story tells the tale of the Maiden Stone on Dumpelder. The stone is simply a rock which has split from the bulk, leaving a space just wide enough to squeeze through and that’s exactly what the local people did, to increase their fertility and bring good fortune; there was however, a ‘trial’ attached – they had to perform the rite naked. The dance round the stone was best performed at certain times of the year but more especially, for better results, during the yearly Solstice and Equinox, and the impish fairies knew that. When the dance began, at the precise time, the fairies pounced and stole the dancers’ clothes.

The naked dancers had to chase the fairies to retrieve their garb which involved passing everybody on the hill, to their eternal embarrassment. The summer Solstice reminds us of the meaning of the place, the ‘Hill of Shafts’, meaning the shafts of light at certain times during the Solstice; rays of light glinting through points on the hill telling the people everything they needed to know in order to conduct their everyday lives throughout the year. Similar rituals were enacted by people all over the ancient world including the Egyptians, the native people of North America, the Incas and so on.

Entrance to Treasure Chamber on Traprain Law , courtesy of  Jim Barton, Geograph project

Over the centuries, historians, archaeologists and scientists have learned much of the Gododdin way of life but nothing could have prepared them for an amazing discovery during excavations of the early 20th century. From 1914, a team of archaeologists led by Alexander Curle, began digs within the settlement on the hill. They found the wood and turfs of dwelling places but in 1919, they, quite literally struck silver in the form of a great cache of broken Roman silverware, most of which was created for the dining table. The collective pieces, nearly 250 of them, weighed in at 22 kg and is the largest such find outside of the empire, bearing in mind, the treasure is thought to have been stashed in the earlier part of the 5th century, long after the Roman retreat from the area which was still part of Northumbria. Indeed many believe it is the largest find of Roman silver anywhere; the find also included some Roman coins including some from the Nero era and others from the reigns of Arcadius, Valens and Honorius in the latter part of the 4th century, which tend to give a better indication of the timescale of the Roman withdrawal. From soon after the find, the treasure has been cared for in the loving arms of the National Museum of Scotland in Edinburgh.

The biggest conundrum facing the experts from the beginning was, how did the treasure come to end up on Traprain? Was it the prize of a Votadini raid on the embattled Romans beyond Hadrian’s Wall or was it a gift from the Romans for services rendered as thanks for the Votadini keeping the troublesome northern Picts at bay? It is almost certain that the old Brythonic tribe had come to an ‘understanding’ with the Romans right from the beginning of the their invasion of Northern Britain and were being recompensed from the start. That being the case, the hoard of silver was almost certainly a final ‘golden handshake’ for their allegiance with the Latin invaders. But why was it hacked in to so many small pieces? By cutting the treasure trove in such a manner, it could be shared around equally to tribal leaders and used as a bargaining tool when purchasing necessities or simply creating smaller units of spendable currency.

In February of 2013, it was announced, the National Museums of Scotland had carried out a project to find out exactly how some of the hacked up treasure would have looked before being placed under the axe. Two small pieces of a table platter were chosen and, using laser technology, they recreated the dish as it would have looked when in use. The results are simply stunning, silver craftsmanship of the very highest order. The recreation has convinced the experts that the Traprain treasure trove is truly the greatest hoard of Roman silver ever found.

The next time, when travelling the A1 east of Haddington, and the huge volcanic mass of Traprain Law looms in to view, remember you are about to pass one of Europe’s most important archaeological sites and the scene of one of Scotland’s earliest cities… and greatest treasures.

Photographs courtesy of Jim Barton, Geograph project

One thought on “The Treasure that is Traprain Law”

  1. Fascinating story, thank you for sharing congratulations James. A ‘must visit’ when I am next back in my homeland.

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