Hilltop Hoard: David Keys Explains How the Discovery of Iron Age Treasure Is Helping to Reveal the Geopolitics of the Ancient Britons

Article excerpt

As you drive through the rolling hills of Leicestershire across the narrow flood plain of the River Welland into Northamptonshire, you can be forgiven for failing to realise that you've changed county. But 2,000 years ago, this picturesque meandering waterway, almost certainly flanked by undrained marshes, was a major frontier, an edgy border between two important Celtic tribal kingdoms, 'the Realm of the Army of the Earth Goddess' and 'the Land of Great Warriors'.

Little is known about the geopolitics of late-prehistoric Britain: precisely where all of the frontiers ran; which groups held the power; and with what external backing? But the recent discovery of a spectacular hoard of gold and silver on an East Midlands hilltop, near the little town of Market Harborough, is helping to increase historians' understanding of the subject.

Preliminary examinations have revealed that the treasure, buried as a pagan religious offering around the time of the Roman invasion in 43 AD, contains new evidence as to who ruled what in central Britain at that time.

Directed by Vicky Priest of University of Leicester's vice, the dig has unearthed 3,000 and 4,000 coins, worth the equivalent of 200,000 [pounds sterling] in Iron Age times. More significantly, it also revealed the remains of a Roman cavalry helmet--the only example of its type ever found in Britain--which some believe was a Roman diplomatic gift designed to curry favour with local rulers and so keep the natives sweet. The helmet has an iron core covered with sheet silver decorated in repousse form with textile drapery motifs, stylised hair topped by a laurel wreath and the image of a lion. Key elements were highlighted with pure gold applied as a gilt overlay.

Until recently, no-one had suspected that anything of great value--let alone a spectacular hoard of treasure--lay hidden beneath the hill's topsoil. But just over two years ago, some local amateur archaeologists, working in a community heritage project, began finding ancient silver coins. Within a year an excavation at the site quite literally struck gold.

Amateur archaeology

At first the coins emerged from the heavy clay topsoil one by one. But when excavations were underway, the subsoil began to yield thousands of silver and gold pieces. Ken Wallace, the amateur archaeologist who found the first coins, says that he and his colleagues were stunned as vast numbers of coins began appearing out of the dirt in virtually mint condition. Fearing for the site's safety and its golden secrets, nervous archaeologists subsequently imposed an information and publicity black-out.

The native Iron Age population in what is now Leicestershire was a Celtic tribe called the Corieltauvi, or 'Army of the Earth Goddess'. However, its links with other tribes and its attitude to the Roman invasion have always been a mystery. As well as Leicestershire, the Corieltauvi controlled an area that today encompasses Lincolnshire and parts of what is now Nottinghamshire and Northamptonshire. Because they dominated the long-distance trails and tracks from southeast Britain to the north and northwest, they were of strategic importance to the Romans.

Roman allegiance

Evidence from the dig hints that the Corieltauvi may have supported the Romans; the idea that the helmet was a diplomatic gift is the most obvious example. But more importantly, the coins suggests that the Corieltauvi were ruled by a king who ran the neighbouring tribe, the pro-Roman Iceni of what is now Norfolk.

Both Corieltauvian and Icenian coins recovered from the hoard bare two similar names: Esuprasu on the Corieltauvian coins and Esuprastus on the Icenian ones. Dr Jonathan Williams, curator of Iron Age and Roman coins at the British Museum, who's been examining the treasure, believes that these are different versions of the same name. Esuprastus, he says, is the Latinisation of the otherwise unattested Celtic name Esuprasu, which is thought to mean 'the Faithful One of the Water God'. …