In May 2020, James Spark and Mark Didlick, two avid metal detectorists, made an astonishing discovery in North Yorkshire – a discovery that archaeologists have since labelled some of Yorkshire’s most significant Roman finds. The discovery was a group of four beautifully-preserved bronze objects that had rested in the ground for almost 2,000 years. Today, these four objects sit centre stage at the Yorkshire Museum, on display for all to see: the Ryedale Hoard.
A sceptre head
The hoard itself consists of four separate artefacts. The first, and arguably most striking, is the small bronze head of a bearded figure. Finely detailed, each strand of the man’s hair has been individually picked out; his eyes are hollow; altogether the object can fit in the palm of your hand.
Hollow at the back, archaeologists believe that this head was originally designed to sit a’top a priestly staff. Specialised priests would have used this staff during rituals associated with the Roman imperial cult, the worship of the emperor as a god.
Archaeologists believe that this sceptre head is associated with the imperial cult because of who they think it depicts. The figure’s facial features closely resemble the Roman emperor Marcus Aurelius, who ruled in the mid 2nd century AD and was known as the ‘Philosopher Emperor’. A particular feature of the bust, that regularly characterises Marcus Aurelius on other depictions of him (coins, statues etc), is the figure’s forked beard.
The head’s hollow eyes were probably not always so vacant. Originally, a different material probably served as the head’s eyes: either a gemstone or coloured glass. Whatever the material, the eyes have since been lost. Rich in detail on its front side, this small bust (probably) of Marcus Aurelius was designed to be viewed from the front.
The second object is a small, bronze figurine depicting Mars – the Roman god of war. Riding a horse and brandishing arms and armour, this was a common representation of the bellicose deity; throughout Britain and Gaul, archaeologists have uncovered similar-looking artefacts, also depicting Mars.
Mars himself is rich in detail. He wears a crested helmet and pleated tunic; he also has an incredibly detailed horse harness. Originally, there would have been more to this statuette. The spear Mars was holding in his right hand and the shield he carried in his left doesn’t survive. Being the god of war, depictions of Mars were sure to emphasise his warrior persona – riding into battle with spear and shield.
Depictions of Mars were popular in the north of Roman Britain. After all, this was a heavily militarised area; the Romans stationed lots of soldiers in this part of the province, tasked with policing this northern frontier of the Empire. Mars was a popular deity amongst these soldiers; they saw him as a protective spirit, offerings to whom would protect them in battle. It’s no surprise that we therefore find a depiction of him in this hoard.
The third object in the Ryedale Hoard is more unusual, very different to both the sceptre head and the Mars statuette. It’s a plumb bob, a functional tool that the Romans used for measuring straight lines during building and landscape projects. The plumb bob itself doesn’t have much wear on it, suggesting that it hadn’t experienced much use before it was buried in this hoard. To find a functional tool like this plumb bob alongside these very different objects is exceedingly rare and makes the Ryedale Hoard discovery that more remarkable.
The fourth and final object in the hoard is a small, broken key – crafted in the shape of a horse. It is unclear as to whether the key was broken before the person buried this hoard, or whether the key corroded in the ground. If the key was already broken, then it could indicate a magical practice (magical beliefs and practices were closely interwoven with religion and life in the Roman period). The horse consists of lots of detail on its eyes, teeth and mane and is a real pinnacle of local craftsmanship in 2nd century Roman Yorkshire.
Together these four objects are some of the finest art objects discovered from Roman Yorkshire. But it’s a hoard that is still shrouded in quite a lot of mystery, especially concerning who buried it almost 2,000 years ago.
Who buried the Ryedale Hoard?
The Yorkshire Museum have put forward four theories as to who buried this hoard of objects.
The first theory is that a priest of the imperial cult buried the hoard, inspired by the sceptre head of Marcus Aurelius. Archaeological evidence affirms that the imperial cult was present in this area of the Roman Empire, along with specific priests (seviri augustales) that oversaw the cult and its related ceremonies. Could one of these priests have buried the hoard as part of an imperial cult ceremony?
The second theory is that a soldier buried the hoard, inspired by the Mars figurine. York’s origins are closely entwined with the Roman military; it was the famous 9th Legion that founded York in c.70 AD. By the mid 2nd century, the north of Roman Britain was a highly-militarised place, with tens of thousands of soldiers being deployed at / near Hadrian’s Wall. It’s therefore possible that a soldier buried this hoard before he marched north. Perhaps he buried the hoard as a dedication to the Roman god Mars, to keep him safe on a future, dangerous venture.
The third theory is that a metalworker buried the Ryedale Hoard, someone who had gathered these objects with an intention to melt them down and repurpose the materials for bronze working. We know, after all, that metal workers were prevalent in the surrounding area. Knaresborough is home to the largest Roman metalworkers hoard in northern Britain, originally consisting of more than 30 bronze vessels. Could the hoard have therefore been buried by a metalworker, intent on melting down the objects at a future date?
The fourth and final theory is that the hoard was buried by a farmer, inspired by the functional plumb bob. This theory asks the question: why was this functional tool buried alongside these very different objects? Perhaps it was because the hoard’s burying was associated with a ritual, enacted to bless an act of landscape management that would have required tools such as the plumb bob. Could the ritual have been overseen by a farmer, who lived in this rural area of Roman Yorkshire?
The question of who buried this hoard remains unanswered, but the Yorkshire Museum’s team has laid out the above four theories as the starting point. They welcome more theories, put forward by those coming to the Museum to view the hoard – centre stage of the Museum’s newest exhibition.