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'Scotland's Early Silver' at the National Museum of Scotland

A new exhibition at the National Museum of Scotland supported by Glenmorangie will show for the first time how silver, not gold, became the most important precious metal in Scotland over the course of the first millennium AD. New research and recent archaeological discoveries will chart the first thousand years of silver in Scotland. The exhibition will showcase Scotland’s earliest silver, arriving with the Roman army, and show the lasting impact this new material had on early Medieval Scotland. This research is part of a unique multi award-winning cultural partnership with The Glenmorangie Company which is now in its ninth year.

'Scotland's Early Silver' at the National Museum of Scotland
Half of a shallow silver bowl decorated with the head of Hercules, and featuring hunting scenes on the outside, 
from Traprain Law, East Lothian, AD 410–425 [Credit: National Museum of Scotland]
Alice Blackwell, Glenmorangie research fellow at National Museums Scotland, said: "We’re delighted to be able to showcase the first thousand years of silver in Scotland. This exhibition looks at the most powerful objects made in a new and precious material. It sheds light on the crucial transition from Roman Iron Age tribal society to the first kingdoms in Scotland that emerged in the 4th – 9th centuries. It’s very exciting to be able to tell a story of a thousand years of power and prestige through the biography of this one precious metal. This research would not have been possible without the long and enthusiastic support of The Glenmorangie Company, and we are extremely proud of how our innovative partnership has enriched academic and public understanding of Scotland’s past.”

'Scotland's Early Silver' at the National Museum of Scotland
Massive silver chain, made from pairs of solid links and fastened with a penannular clasp decorated with Pictish 
symbols, from Parkhill, Aberdeenshire, AD 400–600 [Credit: National Museum of Scotland]
Hamish Torrie, Corporate Social Responsibility Director at The Glenmorangie Company, said: "We are rooted deep in Scotland and Glenmorangie has been delighted to support the extensive study of the Early Medieval period in an innovative research partnership that is now in its ninth year. The exhibition is another exciting milestone in the Glenmorangie Research Project, bringing fascinating material and innovative scholarship into the public eye.”

'Scotland's Early Silver' at the National Museum of Scotland
Silver handles in the shape of a leopard, from Traprain Law, East Lothian, AD 410–425 
[Credit: National Museum of Scotland]
The exhibition will include the first public display of the recently unveiled Dairsie Hoard, which dates to the late 3rd century AD and is the earliest known example of hacksilver from anywhere beyond the Roman frontier.

'Scotland's Early Silver' at the National Museum of Scotland
Hunterston Brooch, a solid silver brooch covered in a thin layer of gold, from Hunterston, 
Ayrshire, AD 650–750 [Credit: National Museum of Scotland]
Also on its first full public display is the Gaulcross hoard, discovered in Aberdeenshire in 2013. Since its excavation, research has revealed striking similarities with another find, from Norrie’s Law, in Fife. Both hoards date to the 5th–6th centuries AD and show for the first time how earlier Roman silver was recycled and repurposed over the centuries.


Scotland’s first silver came as coins and small dress accessories from the Roman world. Roman frontier diplomacy used payments of silver coins to buy peace and allies beyond its frontiers. This early silver coinage could not be spent beyond the frontier, but it was not just melted down – it was used by local elites to impress rivals and make gifts to the gods, hoarded and buried in the ground.

'Scotland's Early Silver' at the National Museum of Scotland
Silver pennanular brooch with gilded interlaced ornamentation, from Rogart, Sutherland, 
AD 700–800 [Credit: National Museum of Scotland]
Local attitudes changed with a shift in Roman policy – the empire began to use ‘hacksilver’ for these transactions. Hacksilver refers to objects literally hacked into pieces, converted from beautiful treasures into raw silver bullion. Roman silver began to be melted down and made into new, local power symbols. This was the start of generations of recycling this most valued of materials.

'Scotland's Early Silver' at the National Museum of Scotland
The Norrie's Law hoard [Credit: National Museum of Scotland]
By the early medieval period, silver was being made into new power symbols, including massive silver neck chains. These striking objects are unique to Scotland, and the nine surviving examples will be showcased together for the first time in this exhibition. They show both the importance of silver and the amount that was available in parts of Scotland – the heaviest is made from almost 3kg of silver. Elaborate brooches were also made in silver, and the exhibition will re-examine one of National Museums Scotland’s most iconic objects, the Hunterston Brooch.

After hundreds of years of recycling the same silver, supplies became scarce and diluted, debased by bronze added to make limited supplies stretch further. The first new sources of silver in almost a thousand years arrived with the Vikings, and the exhibition ends with objects illustrating the new ideas that came with these new metal supplies.

Scotland’s Early Silver runs from October 13 to February 25 at the National Museum of Scotland in Edinburgh

Source: National Museum of Scotland [October 08, 2017]

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