Just to the southwest of the walled Roman town of Silchester is a late Iron Age earthwork. In 1985, for the first time in many years, the adjacent area was ploughed. Searching by a metal detectorist unearthed an elaborate and flamboyant gold finger-ring with strands of beaded gold wire forming a filigree hoop and a large engraved gem (intaglio). Such rings generally date to the last few decades of the Roman period in Britain and were widespread throughout the Roman Empire. The intaglio consists of onyx engraved with a satyr and a small cupid. Four late Roman silver coins were found nearby.
During the winter of 1986-7 further finds were detected nearby and coin finds reached 55 in total. Although the exact locations were not reported, a visit to the site by an archaeologist revealed a limited area of disturbance and it is thought likely that both sets of discoveries derive from a single hoard. A subsequent small excavation exposed no further late Roman material and no associated features. This suggests that the collection was lost or hidden and is most likely to have been a ‘flight’ hoard.
Of the 55 coins, all but three were heavily corroded, broken silver examples of the late 4th century AD. At least 13 of them had been ‘clipped’, a practice dated to the reign of Constantine II (407-11 AD). Four additional rings were found, two complete gold examples and two fragmentary, one of which was silver. Because of potential plough damage it is impossible to tell whether the incomplete and broken rings were part of a jeweller’s hoard or were damaged after their concealment.
One of the complete gold rings has a raised bezel set with a glass gem in imitation of onyx, cast with the device of a satyr carrying a hare. This ring is large and heavy; the other complete but distorted gold ring is much slighter, set with a re-used glass bead. Only very fragmentary and mineralised remains of the silver ring survived. This had also been set with an imitation onyx cast glass gem, decorated with the image of a seated bearded man reading from a scroll, interpreted as a philosopher.
Some of the items mentioned here are on display at the Willis Museum in Basingstoke. The Silchester hoard, though smaller in size, can be compared through its composition to the late Romano-British Thetford Hoard, discovered in 1979 in Norfolk. Two rings from Thetford are similar to the Silchester gold ring with the glass bead; a satyr appears on a gold buckle-plate from Thetford.
N1997.20 – archive held by Hampshire Cultural Trust
M.G. Fulford, M. Henig and C. Johns, A Late Roman Gold Finger-Ring from Silchester, Hampshire, Britannia Vol. XVIII, 1987, pp.279-281.
M.G. Fulford, A.Burnett, and C. Johns, A Hoard of Late Roman Rings and Silver Coins from Silchester, Hampshire, Britannia Vol. XX, 1989, pp.219-228.
Series by Dave Allen, Sarah Gould, Lesley Johnson, Jane King, Peter Stone
Object photographs by Claire Woodhead.