MAJOR breakthroughs in our understanding of the Picts, the “lost” ancient people of Northern Scotland, and their possible interaction with the last Romans in Britain have followed the discovery of a hoard of Roman silver in Aberdeenshire.

First uncovered in 1838 and again in 2014 and now known as the Gaulcross Hoard, the items discovered over the past 18 months now extend to more than 100 silver coins and objects.

What is exciting archaeologists and historians is that although the hoard is Pictish in origin, the metal itself is Roman and includes Hacksilber, fragments of cut and bent silver items that were often used as currency by the Romans.

The suggestion by the discoverers is that the Gaulcross Hoard was originally in high-status Roman hands and that the Picts acquired them either through looting, trade or military means.

A team led by Gordon Noble, senior lecturer in the department of archaeology at Aberdeen University, reports in this month’s Antiquity magazine on their latest research into the hoard that was originally found in 1838.

Noble and his colleagues revisited the site and began to find more and more silver objects. Research into their origin and meaning will take months if not years and could change the way history views the Picts and the Romans.

He wrote: “The new work at Gaulcross has uncovered a remarkable range of important new objects, some never before seen in Scotland.

“Further analysis will allow them to be fully integrated into our narratives of society in the late Roman and post-Roman centuries in northern Britain and its wider European context.

Noble added: “A number of the finds are unique or very rare.

The new fieldwork at Gaulcross has entirely changed our knowledge of the scale and character of this hoard.

“One hundred new silver items were recovered: mostly small fragments of sheet silver, hacked fragments of objects and, occasionally, more diagnostic and intact objects.

“We have confirmed that the three surviving items were part of a larger Hacksilber hoard similar to the only other comparable hoard known in Scotland: the Norrie’s Law hoard from Fife.

“Large silver hand-pins found in both had always linked the two hoards but within the new finds from Gaulcross there are more recognisable late Roman objects than in the Norrie’s Law hoard, such as hacked dish fragments, spoon handles and a strap-end/belt fitting.

“There are also clipped siliquae, a British phenomenon that involves removing the edges of fourth-century Roman silver coins in order to stretch out increasingly diminishing supplies of silver during the fifth century AD when coinage was no longer being imported into Britain.”

Noble pointed out to The National that the Picts owe their very name to the Romans in Britain, who first described the “painted people” in the north as “pictus” in 297 AD.

He added: “By the fourth century there are plenty of references to the Picts wreaking havoc on the

Roman occupiers of Britain, but our new research is beginning to shed light on interaction between the Picts and Romans.”

Hamish MacPherson: Hidden past of our elusive forebears

IT is thanks to archaeologists like Dr Gordon Noble that we are learning more and more about the Picts, the people who occupied much of Northern Scotland for centuries before their link with the Scots spreading inwards from Argyll, the kingdom of Dalriada, created Alba.

The reason why we know so little about the Picts is that while they left plenty of clues about themselves on standing stones and other symbols, there is precious little written contemporaneous history about them.

Additionally, we still do not know their language.

Few readers outside of academia will have guessed that the Picts and the Romano-British peoples co-existed on this island for quite some time.

That co-existence was not always peaceable, not by a long chalk, but the Gaulcross Hoard suggests that by the fifth and sixth centuries AD, there was considerable interaction between the Picts and those who still classed themselves as Romans and who used Roman silver for their coinage and artefacts.

Having long ago abandoned both the Antonine Wall and Hadrian’s Wall, by the beginning of the fifth century AD the inhabitants of Roman South Britain felt they had been abandoned by Rome itself.

It is this period that historians call “sub” or “post” Roman.

The Roman armies withdrew finally from Britain around 407 AD, and that was an open invitation for the Picts and the Scots to raid ever further south.

Some years later the remaining Romano-Britons sent a letter, which is famously known as the Groans of the Britons, to Aetius, military leader of the Western Roman Empire, pleading for help to beat off the raiders from North Britain.

According to the historian monk Gildas, writing much later, the letter stated: “The barbarians drive us to the sea, the sea drives us to the barbarians; between these two means of death, we are either killed or drowned.”

This is important because in desperation and without Roman protection, the remaining Romano-Britons invited mercenaries from Europe to help them, and thus Anglo-Saxon England was born.