Tuesday, March 29, 2011


Catherine Johns, The Hoxne Late Roman Treasure: Gold Jewellery and Silver Plate. London: British Museum Press, 2009. Pp. x, 278. ISBN 9780714118178. £60.00.

Reviewed by Kirsten Ataoguz, Indiana University Purdue University, Fort Wayne (ataoguzj@ipfw.edu)

Version at BMCR home site

In the early fifth century, Romano-Britons of unknown identity buried a large quantity of coins, gold jewelry, silver spoons, and other precious objects in an oak chest measuring roughly 24 x 18 x 12 inches. Almost 1,600 years later, in 1992, Eric Lawes discovered the treasure with a metal detector while looking for a lost hammer on a farm in the county of Suffolk. Lawes refrained from removing the valuables on his own and notified the authorities, thereby making possible a proper archaeological excavation of the treasure. Peter Guest published the coins in 2005 in The Late Roman Gold and Silver Coins from the Hoxne Treasure, and in 2009, Catherine Johns published the remaining items in The Hoxne Late Roman Treasure: Gold Jewellery and Silver Plate. Johns authored most of the text of this second volume, but incorporated essays by others, as detailed in the contents listed at the end of this review.

In addition to the 15,234 coins published by Guest, the treasure includes: twenty-nine pieces of gold jewelry – a body chain, six necklaces, three rings, nineteen bracelets; twelve silver vessels – most notable among them, a tigress-shaped handle and four piperatoria (pepper pots) in the shapes of a female bust, an ibex, Hercules wrestling the giant Antaeus, and a hound attacking a hare; and, ninety-eight silver spoons, four silver strainers, nine cosmetic utensils, and four fragments from an ivory pyxis. The objects bear fifty-three inscriptions, including twenty-one monogram crosses and twenty-seven personal names. The "Equivalent Gold Weight" of the Hoxne Treasure has been calculated as the fifth largest in the world, ahead of both the Sevso and Mildenhall Treasures.1 The inclusion of the "Empress" Pepper Pot (No. 33) in the History of the World in 100 Objects by the BBC and the British Museum argues well for both the general interest and scholarly relevance of this hoard.

Johns analyzes the objects by type in a sequence of six essays. Her thoroughness often preempts the contributions of her collaborators, and the catalogue merely summarizes her observations. A more integrative organization would have better presented the material. Furthermore, within her typologically organized analyses, Johns's discussions range far beyond the immediate study of the objects in the hoard. The more interpretative material would have been better suited to separate essays on specific themes. In particular, Johns's insights about dining customs (130-131) and the nature of jewelry collecting (59) merit more extensive and dedicated discussion with reproduced comparanda.

The absence of topical essays also leaves problems incompletely explored and intriguing connections unmade. For example, the potency of an old coin mounted onto the clasp of the body chain(No. 1)2 and a gem setting evoking early medieval metalwork on its front render the question of how a woman would have worn the body chain far more intriguing (27). If she wore it underneath her clothing, then the coin and even perhaps the gems would have certainly functioned as amulets. If she wore it outside her clothing, then the apotropaic function of the coin and the gems could have been at least as important as the display of "wealth and taste" (26). The incorporation of a monogram cross through the subtle rounding of one end of a cross to form the rho in the clasp of necklace no. 4 (32) can then be interpreted as another manifestation in the hoard of late antique superstition.

Johns holds some of the most stimulating material in the volume until her "Summaries and Speculations." When she notes the lack of art historical interest in the systematic analysis of the "decorative styles, methods and motifs of Late Roman silver" (208), she repeats an observation that she made twenty years ago.3 Johns acknowledges her use of art historical judgment throughout the catalogue and also challenges archaeologists who view art history as old-fashioned and elitist. Johns may be best positioned to undertake such an endeavor, and thematic essays dedicated to these topics would have greatly enriched the volume.

Her use and defense of art history make unfortunate her own infelicitous use of its methods. Most notably, in a discussion of bracelet no. 23, Johns describes the style of its animals as "na├»ve to an astonishing degree" (44). She can only attribute its "totally primitive manner" (45) to one of two possibilities – either a child goldsmith or a doting parent or grandparent seeking to preserve a child's drawings on a gold bracelet (46). Johns acknowledges the inappropriate projection of such a modern-seeming "parental besottedness;" nevertheless, she cannot imagine a third or fourth possibility, even when she herself observes that "paradoxically," the drawing gives "a clear impression of craft skill and strong personal style" (45) and that "it is actually easier to identify the animals" (44). In fact, greater art historical sensibilities would have also informed discussion of the "Empress" Pepper Pot, where Johns agonizes over the height of the earrings on the face or the intricacies of the figure's coiffure even while acknowledging that the silversmith likely never saw it being created in real life (85).

Any shortcomings, however, may be easily forgiven in light of Johns's intellectual generosity. She gives her blessing to "new intellectual approaches and new methods" and expresses humility as she offers her theories as "tentative, based on my personal impressions and closer familiarity" (201). Johns concludes the volume with an apologetic for inquiry into the past and an assertion of the value of the subjective response of the modern viewer to the tactile and visual qualities of an object: "Imaginative interpretations based on a feeling that our ancestors would often have responded to events rather as we do ourselves are often viewed askance because they cannot be proved: this does not mean that they have to be wrong." (209) She cautions against intellectual detachment; unfortunately, her own imaginative interpretations demonstrate the risk of insufficient distance between scholar and object.

High quality black-and-white photographs supplemented by line drawings that clarify details and materials amply illustrate the volume; nevertheless, color reproductions between the covers would have greatly favored the objects' precious metals. To conclude, one wonders how the use of tools like Flickr to enable the near immediate sharing of high quality color images of found objects (such as, most recently, with the Staffordshire Hoard) and the resulting collaborative analysis by lay and professionals on blogs and email lists, will change this genre of publication and the thoughtful and sustained, but relatively isolated, deliberation that precedes it.

Contents (unless otherwise noted, author is Catherine Johns): Preface; Acknowledgements; 1 Introduction; Judith Plouviez, Discovery and archaeological investigation of the site; The gold jewellery; Silver vessels; Silver spoons and strainers; Silver toilet utensils, box fittings and miscellaneous items; Objects of ivory, bone and wood; Iron objects; R.S.O. Tomlin, The inscriptions; MR. Cowell and D.R. Hook, The analysis of the metal artefacts; Susan La Niece, Roman gold- and silversmithing and the Hoxne treasure; Caroline Cartwright, Wood and other organic remains; Simon Dove, Conservation of the Hoxne hoard, 1992-7; P.S.W. Guest, Summary of the coins; Summaries and speculations; Catalogue; Judith Plouviez, Appendix 1 Notes on the site in its Roman and post-Roman contexts; Appendix 2 Weights of gold jewellery and silver objects; Summary list of inscriptions; Concordance A Catalogue numbers to contexts; Concordance B Contexts to catalogue numbers; Bibliography; Index.


1.   Richard Hobbs, "Mine's bigger than yours; comparing values of Late Roman hoards," in Roman Finds: Context and Theory, ed. Richard Hingley and Steven Willis (Oxford: Oxbow , 2007), 84.
2.   Henry Maguire, "Magic and Money in the Early Middle Ages," Speculum 72, no. 4 (1997): 1037-1054.
3.   Catherine Johns, "Research on Roman Silver Plate," Journal of Roman Archaeology 3 (1990): 41.

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