A new exhibition in Stornoway from National Museums Scotland (supported by Glenmorangie) shows how silver, not gold, became the most important precious metal in Scotland over the course of the first millennium AD.
Scotland’s Early Silver is on display at Museum nan Eilean by Lews Castle from 4 May until 23 June.
Featuring spectacular objects dating from AD75 to AD1000, and supported by The Glenmorangie Research Project on Early Medieval Scotland, Scotland’s Early Silver explores the part that silver played in the transformation of society in Scotland throughout the first millennium AD.
Today gold is more valuable than silver, but in the first millennium AD silver was the most powerful material in Scotland. Scotland’s earliest silver arrived with the Roman army and had a lasting impact on local society, quickly becoming associated with prestige and power.
In the centuries that followed, Roman silver objects were hacked up, melted down and recycled to make iconic early medieval treasures like massive silver chains and ornate brooches.
The exhibition includes the recently discovered Dairsie hoard, which dates to the late 3rd century AD and is the earliest known example of hacksilver from anywhere beyond the Roman frontier.
Also continuing on its first full public display is the Gaulcross hoard, discovered in Aberdeenshire in 2013. Since its excavation, this hoard has cast new light on how early Roman silver was recycled and repurposed over the centuries.
Visitors will also enjoy a series of short films which explain the history of some of the pieces, their discovery, and how they have been conserved for future generations.
Nick Smith, Heritage Manager at Comhairle nan Eilean Siar said “We are delighted to host Scotland’s Early Silver and continue our ongoing partnership with National Museums Scotland. The exhibition is a great opportunity for islanders and tourists to enjoy some beautiful pieces which represent an important moment in Scotland’s history.”
Alanna Davidson, Touring Exhibitions Manager, National Museums Scotland said, “We are delighted to tour Scotland’s Early Silver to Museum nan Eilean Lews Castle and to share some outstanding silver items from the national collections with our partners. The exhibition has proved to be hugely popular to date and we hope that it will continue to draw large numbers of visitors from Lewis and beyond during its time in Stornoway.”
The exhibition reflects recent scholarship undertaken to place Scotland’s early silver in a European context through a research network project supported by the UK Arts and Humanities Research Council.
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.
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.
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.
The exhibition has been made possible by an innovative partnership between The Glenmorangie Company and National Museums Scotland. Since 2008, this association has supported the Museum’s academic research and public engagement activities and funded an archaeological research post. The basis for the partnership comes from eighth-century Hilton of Cadboll Stone, on display in the National Museum of Scotland’s Early People gallery. The Hilton of Cadboll stone was discovered near Glenmorangie Distillery in Ross-shire, and is the inspiration for the brand icon that adorns Glenmorangie's range of single malt whiskies.
The Scotland’s Early Silver tour will also visit:
Kirkcudbright Galleries, Kirkcudbright: 7 July – 30 September 2018
Duff House, Banff: 12 October 2018 – 17 March 2019
Scotland’s Early Silver is a National Museums Scotland touring exhibition.