A Shining Example of Roman Craftsmanship: Unveiling the Superb Berthouville Treasure

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A remarkable silver treasure discovered in France in 1830 is one of the most impressive collections of extremely well-preserved Roman artifacts. Even though almost two centuries have passed since it was found, researchers are still trying to find the answers to the secrets hidden within this fantastic hoard.

The striking silver hoard was discovered in March of 1830 – though no one could imagine then how important the find would be. The magnificent treasure was unearthed in the commune of Berthouville, in the Eure department of Normandy in northern France.

The Silver Hoard of Gaul

The hoard consists of unique artifacts made of silver and other metals. The items were dated to the 1st and 2nd centuries AD. Together, they are one of the best-preserved ancient Roman deposits related to the cults in Britannia and Gaul. Apart from the Berthouville treasure, only two more hoards have been found in a similar condition. Although the artifacts could have been made in the 1st century, they were hidden during the late 2nd, or the first half of the 3rd century.

The collection of 93 artifacts reaches a total weight of 25 kg (55lbs). Although most of them are cups, jugs, and bowls, there are also several items that are more interesting. Among the most exciting artifacts is a phiale – a special ancient vessel used for libations (a type of drink offered to a deity).

A phiale. ( CC BY-SA 3.0 )

Two other fascinating artifacts are silver statuettes. One is a gorgeous silver bust of the goddess Maia and the other is a 60cm (23.6 inch) complete statuette of Mercury. During one of the campaigns in the 1st century BC, Julius Caesar identified Mercury as a major deity in Gaul. However, researchers from Getty suggest both figurines in the Berthouville Treasure are Romanized versions of Gallic deities.

The Roman gods were paired with local deities in different parts of the Empire. Due to this, the Gall-Roman religion was created, and lasted, for a few centuries in this area. Apart from the statuette, a collection of four bowls also consists of designs related to Mercury. The Latin writing carved on them says ”votum solvit libens merito” (“He fulfills his vow freely, as is deserved”).

Silver figure of the Roman god Mercury from the treasure.

Silver figure of the Roman god Mercury from the treasure. ( CC BY-SA 3.0 )

Who Owned the Berthouville Hoard?

It is always very difficult to find out who originally owned this kind of treasure, especially when the artifacts are not found in tombs. The question of why the artifacts were created is also very important – however, it is often hard to discover the answer to this question as well. In this case, the hoard could’ve been created for many reasons. Firstly, researchers supposed that it could have been made for a ritual purpose. However, the difference in time between when the artifacts were created and when they were buried suggests that this was probably not the original reason.

However, researchers have had some luck in discovering interesting details about this hoard. The research by an American team led by Mr. Kenneth Lapatin, Associate Curator of Antiquities at the J. Paul Getty Museum, identified who contributed a few pieces to the hoard. Several votive artifacts had inscriptions that allowed the team to find their original owner. The silver drinking cups (scyphi) decorated with centaurs related to the cult of Dionysus and a pair of silver wine jugs were dated to the 1st century and were owned by Quintus Domitius Tutus.

Achilles mourning Patroclus on a silver jug, also from Tutus' votive offering.

Achilles mourning Patroclus on a silver jug, also from Tutus’ votive offering. ( CC BY 2.5 )

Lapatin is still the leading expert on the Berthouville Treasure. James Wiener asked him about the Roman citizen whose name appears on the inscriptions and what makes these artifacts so special. As he explained:

”Quintus Domitius Tutus was one of several individuals whose name is recorded as a donor to Mercury at the ancient shrine that once stood at Berthouville. Other donors also had Latin names, but some were clearly locals, like Germanissa (the “German woman”), the daughter of Viscarius. Thus we know that there were Romans as well as locals, women as well as men, even freed slaves as well as the free born who worshiped Mercury. We have no other record about Tutus, and we really don’t know much about his taste. We do know that he came into possession of some exquisite silver, and he was quite generous about giving it to Mercury, but we don’t know much about his motivation, except what we are told by the inscriptions, which say he made his dedications “ex voto” — in fulfillment of a vow.

So if this is what they had in remote Gaul, what have we lost from the tables of senators and emperors in Rome!? In fact, some of the pieces found at Berthouville represent the best of surviving Roman silver — better than anything we have from Pompeii, Herculaneum, or anywhere else.”



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