A farm field in Scotland has yielded a dazzling harvest of ancient silver, left at a prehistoric stone circle more than a thousand years ago by someone who never recovered the treasure.
Surprised researchers found the trove at a site called Gaulcross in northeastern Scotland. The scientists were merely trying to learn more about Gaulcross, where 19th-century farm workers dug up a silver cache that has been almost entirely scattered and lost.
"We hoped we might find the odd fragment," says archaeologist Gordon Noble of Scotland's University of Aberdeen. "I don't think we really expected in our wildest dreams to find more than 100 pieces of silver." He and his colleagues report the new find in the current issue of the journal Antiquity.
The silver dates back to the 5th or 6th century, after the Romans decamped and before the Vikings stormed onshore. In this time of political and cultural ferment, Scotland was the realm of an enigmatic people known as the Picts. Often stereotyped as tattooed barbarians, the Picts certainly had a talent for war – but also a talent for carving stone and shaping silver.
The Gaulcross hoard, as the treasure is known, includes both Roman handiwork and fine Pictish goods. The Roman items include clippings of silver dishes and silverwork of a kind that adorned Roman military uniforms, says archaeologist Alice Blackwell ofNational Museums Scotland, who is analyzing the hoard. There are also fragments snapped off Pictish brooches and bits of an extremely rare type of wrist bangle.
Like other hoards, the Gaulcross treasure has "preserved fashions (from) what we think of as the darkest bits of the dark age after the fall of the Roman Empire," says study co-author Martin Goldberg of National Museums Scotland. "It's like a little snapshot in time."
But the key to the mysterious treasure may lie not with the few intact objects but with the many small scraps of silver. Half of the hoard, Goldberg says, consists of silver pieces smaller than a pinky fingernail, many the remains of hacked-up bracelets. Similar hoards have turned up in Denmark and Germany.
Such chop-shop collections may have been a way to squeeze value out of passé jewelry and worn-out tableware. So perhaps someone left behind the Gaulcross silver with every intention of retrieving it.
On the other hand, the silver was deposited at a stone circle that was already 2,000 years old at the time of the Picts' rise. A century before the silver was dropped off, a war trumpet had been thrown into a nearby bog as a religious rite. So perhaps the silver, too, was a religious offering.
Whatever its ultimate purpose, these were elite items that would've belonged to the most powerful members of society, the researchers write.
"We don't always see how wealthy past societies were," says archaeologist Rob Collins of Britain's Newcastle University. "These hoards really give us a glimpse of that. There's a lot more glamor and bling that was circulating than we often see."