On Monday 12 May 1919 a small group of workmen was busily engaged on the western shelf of Traprain Law, the great volcanic hill that dominates East Lothian’s coastal plain.
The site had long been recognised as an exceptionally large hillfort covering some 40 acres (16 hectares) previously revealing prehistoric and Roman finds. On this particular afternoon a discovery was made which shattered the usual routine.
The sight that met the workmen was quite extraordinary. Open and exposed on the windswept hillside was a pit brimming with fine Roman silverware. There were more than 100 objects – bowls, cups, flagons, coins, spoons, and mounts, some decorated with religious scenes, others with rich and exotic Mediterranean motifs, handles in the form of dolphins and panthers, nearly all folded and cut up as if for melting down.
The coins suggested a date for the hoard during the reign of Honorius, between 395-423 AD. Traprain’s place in the history of Scottish archaeology was assured.
Research reveals a picture of Traprain Law as a central place in this part of Scotland in prehistory, occupied and used over nearly 4,000 years. The earliest occupation appears to have been in the Neolithic, judging from the numbers of stone axe fragments found on the hill. Later, during the earlier Bronze Age, the site was used as a place of burial and ritual.
During the first four centuries AD, Traprain was variously inside and outside the fluctuating boundaries of the Roman Empire, being located between Hadrian’s Wall and the Antonine Wall.
Several factors suggest that the upper strata of Votadinian society (those resident at Traprain Law) enjoyed a special relationship with Rome at this time. Evidence from the hill suggests they enjoyed apparently unequalled access to Roman goods of the highest quality. Also, the survival of this fortified native centre implies they were not perceived as a threat to Rome.
Furthermore, the absence of Roman marching camps and military installations in the agricultural heartlands of East Lothian suggests that authority continued to be asserted from Traprain itself.
It would seem, even have been, at certain times, a buffer state on the edge of the Empire. Thus the excavations at Traprain Law are highly significant for interpretations of Roman frontier politics.
Ultimately, the Votadinian alliance with Rome may have been their undoing. In the decades around AD 400 a final rampart was erected at Traprain Law, and at more or less the same time the great treasure was buried beneath the floor of a house.
Both may well have been signs of stressful times, for after AD 400 occupation appears quite abruptly to cease. It is tempting to link the final abandonment of this long-lived native centre with the disintegration of Roman Britain during the same period.
Adapted from: British Archaeology magazine February 2001, Ian Armit (Senior Lecturer at Queen’s University Belfast, 1999 – 2006) Professor of Archaeology, University of Bradford, 2006 – present
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(Picture of the silver from The Herald)