Days Out in the Past – Trapain Law

Trapain Law has an impressive presence, an unmissable ancient landmark that dominates the surrounding landscape – exactly the sort of place to find buried treasure.

One thousand five hundred years ago this was the power base for a local tribal chief, someone important enough to be a dealmaker with the Roman Empire. We have a little glimpse into that world because of a remarkable discovery made by archaeologists digging on Trapain Law exactly a hundred years ago.

What they uncovered was the largest hoard of Roman silver from outside the boundaries of the empire, over 250 pieces weighing in total over 20 kilos. 

The silver was once exquisite tableware, dishes, flagons and platters, the very finest quality produced in the Roman Empire. However each item had been hacked and flattened into many pieces.

The beauty of the objects no longer mattered, they were valued simply for the weight of silver they contained.

The hoard has been dated to around 450AD, the dying days of Roman Britain. The province was under attack from all sides, and it is likely that this collection of silver was simply a way of easing frontier diplomacy. The Romans commonly used bribery to help secure their borders, paying off tribes to ensure peace. Whoever ruled Trapain Law was someone the Romans wanted to maintain friendly relations with.

Now for the first time, some of the most important pieces from the Trapain Law hoard have returned to East Lothian, and can be seen in a special exhibition in the John Gray Centre in Haddington. Look out for the decorative figures of a panther and leopard which once formed the handles of wine flagons, and the bowl decorated with a sea monster. Silverware such as this is rare in the Roman world, let alone beyond the borders of the empire.

As part of East Lothian’s Heritage Fortnight https://www.eastlothian.gov.uk/info/210596/archaeology/12109/archaeology_whats_on, there are two unique opportunities to discover more about Trapain Law, the hoard and life in the last days of Roman Britain.

There is the chance to explore Trapain Law in the company of Dr Fraser Hunter from the National Museums of Scotland, an expert in the archaeology of Roman Britain. On Sunday 1 September he will lead a guided walk across the hill, telling the story of this remarkable historic site from Bronze Age hillfort to Roman frontier politics.

The Roman military will also be brought vividly to life in a living history event in Haddington on Saturday 31 August and Sunday 1 September, featuring cavalry, artillery and displays of everyday life. For more details on this event watch for updates on the John Gray Centre’s website.

How to get there? For details of how to visit Trapain Law see the East Lothian Council Website https://www.eastlothian.gov.uk/.

Hailes Castle is also close by and well worth a visit, a picturesque ruin by the side of the River Tyne.

Event details:

  • The Treasures of Trapain, Sunday 1 September, 2pm – 4pm, for booking phone 01620 820690 or call in person at the museum, upstairs at the John Gray Centre.
  • Roman Encampment Family Weekend, Haddington, Saturday 31 August – Sunday 1 September, 10am – 4pm, for more details visit https://www.johngraycentre.org/

Words: David Hicks

Written by Helena Gray



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