Today marks 20 years since the Treasure Act was implemented in England, Wales and Northern Ireland, making it law for all finders of gold and silver objects and hoards of coins over 300 years old to report them. Hence the initiative: Treasure 20.
This has ultimately shaped the course of archaeology in this country and now the vast majority of archaeological finds come through the Portable Antiquities Scheme, contributing thousands of Treasure pieces to the country’s archaeological archives.
Treasure cases feature heavily in my work, as since 2003 Bronze Age hoards are also considered treasure. Much of what I write about on this blog constitutes Treasure cases (think the Long Bredy hoard or the hoards of Cornwall). Without the Treasure Act, who knows how much of this archaeology would never have been found or worse, found but not reported.
So I thought I’d celebrate this event by writing about one of my favourite pieces of Treasure: the Priddy Hoard in Somerset, dating to the Middle Bronze Age (c.1400-1100 BC).
I’ve mentioned this hoard before. It is made up of 17 gold bracelets (in 19 pieces) that were found crushed into a ball. Some of them were broken and some appear to have been tightly coiled before they were buried. This represents a deliberate destruction of these objects.
After all, how can you wear a crushed up bracelet?
However, these bracelets are very special as some represent previously unknown types and a variety of manufacturing techniques. It’s possible they indicate the work of a single individual experimenting with different styles, or several different goldsmiths.
The number of gold bracelets is also pretty spectacular. Some theories suggest this hoard represents the possessions of a single individual, but 17 gold bracelets seem like a lot for one person! Could this have been a family deposit? Or represent the contributions of other communities?
In England, there is only one Middle Bronze Age hoard that contains more gold objects, which is from Cirencester, Gloucestershire. That hoard contained 57(!) gold objects and five bronze objects in a variety of conditions. Some of the goldwork had been deliberately cut down into very small fragments.
Deliberately damaging gold ornaments in the Middle Bronze Age is not uncommon, though I only know of one other hoard in which the ornaments had been crushed together. This was a hoard found in Heyope in Wales, containing 3 ribbon torcs.
How can we interpret these acts of destruction then?
This is where it gets trickier. A functionalist approach is that acts such as fragmented, crushing, and folding or serves to make the objects easier to fit into a crucible. However, the Priddy Hoard would have formed a pretty sizeable ball, and a large combined weight.
On the other hand, this might represent an act of safe keeping, by someone depositing their wealth for collection later – but then why crush the bracelets together? And why was it never collected?
If you want to go ritualistic, you could argue that the entangling of bracelets represents the entangling of different individuals and communities. Though this of course relies on the assumption that the bracelets are metaphors for people.
These are some of the theories that have been circulating amongst archaeologists for over a hundred years. I wish I had a conclusive answer, but odds are we will never know.
Regardless, the Priddy Hoard represents one of the most interesting Treasure Cases to have come up in south west England in the last twenty years – at least from my perspective.
The Treasure Act has done huge amounts for protecting important finds and making sure they are reported properly. And I look forward to seeing what comes up in the next twenty years!
Notes and Acknowledgements
This hoard was one of my inspirations for undertaking my PhD and I have to thank Steve Minnitt for actually taking it off display for me to look at it! It was a fantastic opportunity and I urge everyone to go check it out in its full glory at Taunton Castle Museum.
Be sure to follow the hashtag #Treasure20 on Twitter for other updates!