Sunday, 14 July 2013

The Winchester Hoard: "Crown Jewels" of a Pre-Roman Kingdom?

In a field near Winchester in 2000, an amateur metal-detectorist, Kevan Egan, made what has been described as "the most important discovery of Iron Age gold objects" in Britain for fifty years.

There are two distinct, but clearly matching, sets of jewellery in the hoard, each comprising a "necklace torc;" a pair of gold brooches, in one case still linked by the original gold chain; and a bracelet. One torc is larger than the other, so it has often been assumed that the two sets of jewellery were intended to be worn by a man and a woman.

The brooches are of a type that is recognisably north European, and which can be dated between 80 and 30 BC. The necklace torcs, on the other hand, show an unusual blend of north European "Celtic" taste and Graeco-Roman technology. The "loop-in-loop" chain construction of the torcs, and the soldering that has been used for some of the detail, are techniques that were commonplace in Greek and Roman workshops of the period, but unknown amongst craftsmen working north of the Alps.

No Greek or Roman, however, would have worn objects such as these: they are too large, ostentatious and (in our terms) "blingy" for classical tastes. This has led J.D.Hill and other experts to suggest ( that the torcs must have been made specially as some form of "diplomatic" gift. The diplomacy involved must surely have been that between Julius Caesar and his entourage, on the one hand, and the princes of the Atrebates and Belgae (some of whom later seem to have been absorbed into the British Regnenses) on the other.

The jewellery was not found in the context of a settlement or shrine. They may have been buried as some form of offering at a significant location in the landscape (on top of a small hill). The torcs show evidence of extensive wear, so they may have remained in use for a considerable period of time. No evidence was found in association with them that would indicate the date of burial. We have the names of some high status individuals of the time who might have worn this jewellery (Commius, Tincomarus, Epillos, Verica, even Cogidubnus himself) but, as J.D.Hill and his colleagues have said, " is just as likely that other, totally unknown individuals buried the hoard." What can hardly be doubted, however, is that the objects were worn by people who were their contemporaries, and who moved within the same social and cultural milieu.

The most tantalising clue is a coin of Verica, stamped "CF" (usually interpreted as "son of Commius"), showing an object which could well be one of these torcs.

This was certainly what I had in mind when, in writing An Accidental King, I had Cogidubnus wearing "the royal torc of the Regnenses" as he rode to meet Caratacos. Given the uncertainties, I did not describe it in any detail, but it was one of the objects that I pointed out in the British Museum last Friday, as I gave a brief tour as part of the London launch of the novel.

Mark Patton's novel, An Accidental King, is published by Crooked Cat Publishing, and can be purchased from and

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