Highlights of the British Collection:

Appleford Roman Pewter Hoard

In 1968, gravel extraction in a pit at Appleford brought to light a hoard of pewter which had lain hidden since the fourth or fifth century AD. Situated near the south bank of the Thames between Abingdon and Dorchester-on-Thames, Appleford lies in a densely populated region of Roman rural occupation, clearly seen through the extensive cropmarks along this part of the river, with evidence for a villa-type establishment nearby at Dropshort.

The area immediately around the hoard was destroyed by gravel extraction, but earlier aerial photographs show clear evidence of occupation, and Roman coins and pottery had been found in the field at least since the nineteenth century.

The hoard itself consisted of at least 24 pieces of pewter tableware, making it the third largest hoard of Roman pewter found in this country to date. It was deposited in some sort of pit or shaft, probably a well given the preservation of organic remains, such as leather and a fruit stone, indicating a waterlogged position.

Recovered were one jug, eight small bowls and fifteen plates of various sizes, the largest measuring 50cm in diameter. Most of the pieces are plain, having been polished but given no decoration apart from beading on some of the rims. Two exceptions are the small fluted bowl with a central rosette (all cast decoration) and the etched rosette inscribed between two interlocking squares in the centre of one of the largest plates.

Four of the plates also bear names scratched into the surface, probably indicating ownership. One of these, the largest plate, is inscribed ‘PACATA’ and in a different hand: ‘EMITA (empta) PARTA SVA LOVERNIANVS DONAVIT’ (Lovernianus presented the things he had bought), indicating at least two separate owners.

The hoard was not purchased as a set but was more likely accumulated over time in ones and twos – the pairs suggested by similar styles or, in one case, a common owner (PACATA). Because pewter is very durable and easy to repair, this set may have been collected over a long period of time. All we know for certain about its dating is that based on associated ceramic evidence, it was deposited as a set in the late fourth or early fifth century AD.

The reason the set was hidden in the well is much less clear. It is possible that during the economic and social unrest of the late fourth and early fifth centuries, some wealthy local family was forced to leave their home. Perhaps they took with them their most precious and most costly possessions, but the pewter would have been far too bulky and heavy, as well as relatively inexpensive, so perhaps they hid it in a nearby well, intending to return one day and retrieve it.

Alternatively, the hoard may represent a ritual deposit. The strongest evidence for this is the inscription indicating a gift from Lovernianus described above. Unfortunately he does not specify the recipient or the circumstances of the gift. We know little about pre-Roman religious practices in comparison with later periods, but we do know that they sometimes involved the burial of certain kinds of materials, including non-precious metals, especially in bodies of water and in pits or shafts. We also know that there was a resurgence of pagan cultic practices in Britain towards the end of the Roman period. The fact that the pewter was placed in a well supports this theory as do other objects found in the well, which might be considered typical of a ritual deposit. Associated iron objects include a uniquely Romano-British cauldron chain (Great Chesterford type), a scythe blade, a chisel and a pan with a folding handle. Also found were pottery, shoe leather, quernstone fragments and vegetable and animal remains, including fragments of a human skull. How much, if any, of this material was part of the same deposit as the pewter is unknown. Though it can be interpreted as rubbish dumped into the well after it had fallen out of use, but before the pewter was hidden, its similarity to other, more clearly ritual, deposits supports the idea of a less random influence.

The Appleford hoard is on display in the 'Rome' gallery on the ground floor.

Click to enlarge

Large pewter plate (Click to enlarge)

Large pewter plate with central rosette decoration from the Appleford hoard

Click on image below to see inscription

Plate with Lovernianus dedication  (Click to see inscription)

Pewter plate with Lovernianus's dedication from the Appleford hoard

Appleford hoard

Appleford hoard displayed in the ' Rome' gallery at the Ashnolean Museum

Further Information

Booth, P. and Simmonds, A., Appleford’s Earliest Farmers: Archaeological Work at Appleford Sidings, Oxfordshire, 1993-2000 (Oxford: Oxford Archaeology Occasional Paper 17, 2009).

Brown, D., ‘A Roman Pewter Hoard from Appleford, Berks.’, Oxoniensia, 38, (1973), 184-206. (Available online from the Oxfordshire Architectural and Historical Society)

Hinchliffe, J. and Thomas, R., ‘Archaeological Investigations at Appleford’, Oxoniensia, 45, (1980), 9-111. (Available online from the Oxfordshire Architectural and Historical Society)

Lee, R., The Production, Use and Disposal of Romano-British Pewter Tableware, (Oxford: BAR British Series 478, 2009).

Poulton, R. and Scott, E., ‘The hoarding, deposition and use of pewter in Roman Britain’, in E. Scott, ed., Theoretical Roman archaeology: First Conference Proceedings (Aldershot: Avebury, 1993), 115-132.

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Kristina Glicksman
16 December 2011