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Friday, March 12, 2021

The Mildenhall Treasure

 The Mildenhall Treasure is a large hoard of 34 masterpieces of Roman silver tableware from the fourth century CE, and by far the most valuable Roman objects artistically and by weight of bullion in Britain. It was found at West Row, near Mildenhall, Suffolk, in 1942.  The treasure consists of silver tableware of types current in the 4th century, and was probably concealed at some time in that century. Most of the objects are comparatively large, and all are of very high-quality workmanship.

The hoard consists of two large serving platters, two small decorated serving plates, a deep fluted bowl, a set of four large decorated bowls, two small decorated bowls, two small pedestalled dishes, a deep flanged bowl with a deep, domed cover, five small round ladles with dolphin-shaped handles, and eight long-handled spoons (cochlearia).  

The Great Dish (also known as the Oceanus Dish or as the Neptune Dish, from the face of a sea-god at its centre), which was worked by chasing from the front, is in three concentric zones. In the centre, the head of a marine deity, probably Oceanus, the personification of the ocean, is shown full-face, with a beard made of seaweed and dolphins emerging from his hair. This portrait is surrounded by a narrow inner frieze of decoration populated by nereids (sea-nymphs), tritons and other mythical and natural sea-creatures, while the deep outermost zone carries imagery of the Bacchic thiasos, the dancing, music-making and drinking revels of the god Bacchus. More specifically, the triumph of Bacchus over Hercules is depicted. Hercules is shown staggering drunkenly and supported by two helpful satyrs. Bacchus himself appears with his panther and Silenus at the '12 o'clock' position on the circle in relation to the orientation of the Oceanus head, so that in most illustrations of the dish, he is seen upside-down at the top of the picture. The god Pan also appears in the composition, dancing and brandishing his pan-pipes, as do several dancing Maenads, the female devotees of Bacchus, and satyrs. 

A silver flanged bowl with beaded rim features a scene of a hunter spearing a bear with a tree between the figures and foliage below. The flange is decorated by four scenes separated by busts: the first with a pair of goats and a pair of wild boars with tree and basket between, the second griffins bringing down a horse, flanked by a female bust on the left and a bearded male bust on the right, the third by a pair of recumbent oxen and grazing sheep separated by a tree, the fourth by leopards bringing down a bull flanked by a female bust on the left and a satyr bust on the right.

Another silver flanged bowl contains a central medallion enclosed in a circle of 92 beads, is decorated with a male bust facing left with Corinthian helmet and shield behind the bust; the bust is likely to represent Alexander the Great. The flange is decorated by four scenes separated by busts: the first with a male goat grazing and a pair of sheep, one a ram and the other a female, with a tree between; the second a bear chasing a pair of deer, flanked by a female bust on the left and a bearded male bust on the right; the third by a pair of goats and grazing sheep separated by a tree; the fourth by a bear bringing down a goat and another goat fleeing, separated by a tree, flanked by a female bust on the left and a satyr bust on the right.

I found it interesting that when the Mildenhall Treasure was initially discovered, a number of scholars argued  that the pieces do not properly resemble the style and quality of work expected to be found in provincial Roman Britain, and that since none of the pieces show damage from having been "discovered" with a plough or shovel, there is the possibility that it was not in fact buried at Mildenhall all these centuries, and rather came from somewhere else. Some have suggested the pieces were looted from sites in Italy during World War II, brought back to England and re-buried so as to stage a "discovery", though most scholars give little credit to that theory, and abide by the standard story that the objects were hidden by fleeing Romans who intended to return for them at a later date and never did. The argument that the British province did not have silverware of such high quality has been disproved by a number of subsequent discoveries, including the Hoxne Hoard.

 

The so-called "Great Dish" from the Mildenhall Treasure, 4th century CE, Roman, at the British Museum courtesy of Wikimedia Commons contributor JMiall.


The so-called "Great Dish" from the Mildenhall Treasure, 4th century CE, Roman, at the British Museum courtesy of Wikimedia Commons contributor JMiall.

Silver dish from the Mildenhall Treasure decorated with figures of Pan, a nymph, and other mythological creatures, 4th century CE, Roman, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons contributor BabelStone.

Silver flanged bowl containing a central medallion thought to depict Alexander the Great surrounded with scenes of sheep, goats, and bears along with busts of a female and a satyr, part of the Mildenhall treasure, 4th century CE Roman now in the British Museum.

Silver flanged bowl with beaded rim features a scene of a hunter spearing a bear with a tree between the figures and foliage below, part of the Mildenhall treasure, 4th century CE Roman, now in the British Museum.

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