In May 2020, during the first COVID-19 lockdown relaxation, two metal detectorists found a small group of copper alloy objects very close together, in a field, in the Ampleforth area of Ryedale.
The group is, frankly, stunning. It comprises: 1) a probable sceptre head in the shape of a bust of an Antonine Emperor, 2) a horse and rider figurine, 3) a plumb bob, 4) a horse head with iron shank that was probably a key handle. Individually these objects would all be great, but together they are exceptional. It is recorded by the PAS for posterity: YORYM-870B0E.
Sad times though – due to the current law, as set out in the Treasure Act 1996, these objects are not classed as Treasure and so local museums have no rights to try and purchase them directly from the Crown. Currently, this means that the hoard is due to be privately auctioned on 20th May 2021. The auction catalogue is linked here.
Bypassing their aesthetic beauty, here (you can see that for yourself!) this group of objects is fascinating for another reason – it is probably a ritual assemblage that has been deposited together. This deposition, in rural North Yorkshire, was not close to any known settlements and it thus took place in a rural setting. There are few other Roman finds located from the nearby area, as well as plenty of Bronze Age finds.
The sceptre head and the horse-and-rider figurine could, individually, be directly associated with the Roman religious cults of the Emperor and Mars, respectively. As John Pearce suggests in the PAS record: “the plumb bob’s presence might be an offering made during rituals associated with landscape re-organisation”. The plumb bob, if it could be called a groma was a tool used in land demarcation, and this interpretation is certainly compelling. I’d like to dive a little deeper into the possible ritual affordance of each of the objects in turn.
The sceptre head
The sceptre head suggests that a priestly/ritual professional may have been involved, and the link to the Imperial Cult is clear. It is interesting that we do know of a travelling priest of the Imperial cult for York and Lincoln. The sceptre head was carried as priestly regalia, and likely had a longer phase of life before it’s deposition in the performance of ritual for the Imperial cult. As a sceptre it was held by a pole of some form. Perhaps it was buried whole, with the pole, rather than removed from it? Who knows. It’s presence underground was certainly an inversion of how it was used in its earlier life – conspicuous and held aloft during rituals.
The Antonine Emperor’s presence on this object provides a useful archaeological TPQ of the very late 1st-century (perhaps no surprise). That the Emperor’s head was deposited in the ground in this way might be taken as an indication of the Emperor no-longer being around to take offence (so 3rd-Century is more likely?). The presence of other, very similar, imperial busts (e.g. BERK-E24C84) might have meant that, in the right setting, the sceptre’s figure was a familiar face in a familiar style. Kiernan suggests a really compelling idea in Roman Cult Images: The Lives and Worship of Idols from the Iron Age to Late Antiquity that images of Gods and Emperors had to be disposed of in the correct way so that any latent power wasn’t left hanging about – perhaps this was an example of the correct deposition of an Imperial Cult image that needed to be safely re-used elsewhere because a new Emperor was in power?
The horse-and-rider is taken to be a provincial representation of the god Mars, and they are generally found on the eastern side of Britain, particularly in Lincolnshire (see Durham, 2014, 4.4.1). The immediate landscape surrounding the find was likely very rural in the Roman period, with only a probable road nearby and no immediate settlements. Horses were an important method of transport and important in agricultural practices also – Mars had an aspect as an agricultural guardian. The small figurine potentially saw earlier use in a domestic or portable shrine; the small figure free-standing wherever it was set-up. He originally held a small spear – maybe of a different material, but this is now lost.
The horse key is, perhaps, trickier to link clearly to religious and ritual practices, but it is an unusual object. The horse was designed to be held in the hand and its back-end projected into an iron key. Perhaps, rather than a horse the original objects would look more like a hippocampus? Keys did have ritual associations in the Greek Magical Papyri, particularly if they had seven teeth. Obviously this part is lost, so we can’t be sure; it is unclear if it went into the ground whole or fragmentary. It was designed to be held in the hand and also performed an important function in securing a building or strong box (given it’s size) – the quality of the key points to the contents that it safeguarded being of some value.
The plumb bob is, arguably, the most mundane object in this group – a simple, cast lump that held a piece of string downwards to allow measurement. Pearce suggests that it was part of a groma and thus used in land surveying. It is interesting that only one was found – as the removal of any one bob from a hanging groma would render it rather useless. Perhaps the groma too was being ritually discarded or parts had been replaced, leaving this bob available for another use. A groma was designed to set-out, to make, to design, and to designate and this function brings interesting allusions of building and careful planning to a ritual assemblage.
A ritual assemblage
Together then, these four components brought different religious, ritual, and mundane ideas together in an assemblage. In all likelihood they had previously been associated together. Roman ritual practice often incorporated mundane objects related to people or places alongside more unusual and exotic things and their connection was important. The idea then goes that individually powerful objects could be linked to the correct space and the correct time by the addition of mundane things – they metaphysically ‘grounded’ them. If this interpretation of this group is correct, it represents one of the very, very few examples in Roman Britain of a structured deposit of metal objects with ritual intent that can be linked to the protection or blessing of an agricultural space. There are many organic deposits of this type, particularly groups of animal bones, but the Ryedale assemblage appears to be aiming for something different.
The wider landscape here was, perhaps, important with many Bronze Age barrows nearby on the south-facing slope of a hill providing a setting which already could be linked to divine experience, chthonic practices, and a sense of place for the location of this ritual deposition. And this sense is also missing from the interpretation of the assemblage – it was a group of beautiful things, yes, but it was purposely set at a particular place for a particular function. We might also consider what else the hoard included – flowers, foodstuffs, perfumes or drinks all spring to mind as potential inclusions. Perhaps the now fragmentary objects were deliberately broken (sceptre removed from the pole shaft/key snapped/spear taken from the figure/plumb bob removed from a set) in order to be remade in this assemblage?
The hoard is going to auction soon and will sell for about £100k. Laughably, the press ran various stories that it was ‘on public display’ for the first time. What they meant was that it was at the auction house pre-sale! Before COVID there was a government review on the Treasure Act and one of the proposals being consulted on would have allowed this sort of group of objects to be recorded as Treasure and thus more likely to enter a publicly-accessible institution governed by access and care policies rather than a private collection from which it might never resurface. Shame.
It sold for £185,000. This was way beyond the scope of local and national museums which had some skin in the game, so it’s gone to a private seller. We might find out if it was an international buyer if this thing gets discussed for an Export Ban in the coming months. Its like the Crosby Garrett Helmet all over again. The best hope is now that it might turn up in an exhibition at some point in the future…