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Roman silver pepper pot

About the object

© Trustees of the British Museum

​A pepper pot for a banquet

This silver object, shaped to resemble a Roman noble woman, has holes in its base, which indicates that it was used as a pepper pot. Pepper was an expensive luxury; it did not grow in any part of the Roman empire, and had to be transported by sea, river and overland from India.

The pot was one of four pepper pots found among other high quality objects used for dining: silver toothpicks, ladles, and spoons decorated with dolphins, the symbol of Bacchus, god of wine. There were probably also larger silver plates and vessels, like those found at nearby Mildenhall, but these have disappeared. We need to picture the pepper pot on a fine table surrounded by elaborate and precious dishes, jugs and other tableware. On the silver face, the eyes are picked out in gold, so as the flames from oil lamps flickered, the eyes would have seemed to come alive.

Wealth in late Roman Britain

The pepper pot was found in 1992 by a farmer who was using his metal detector to search for a lost hammer. He found his hammer – it is now in the British Museum – but also a hoard of over 15,000 gold and silver coins, gold jewellery and numerous small items of silver tableware. The coins in the hoard establish that its burial took place some time after AD 407/8. Only a very wealthy family could have owned such treasures. We do not know the identity of the person who buried it but several objects are inscribed with the name Aurelius Ursicinus.

The pepper pot is in the shape of a woman wearing late Roman fashions. Her T-shaped tunic with wide sleeves was popular in the late fourth and fifth centuries and her hair is done up in an intricate style that was often represented in late Roman art. She holds a scroll, probably to symbolise her learning and authority. We do not know if the figure represents a particular woman. It may simply portray a wealthy and aristocratic late Roman woman, just the kind of person who would have owned and used the jewellery and tableware in the hoard.

The decline of the Roman empire in the west

Britain had become part of the Roman empire in AD 43, so by the time this pepper pot was buried it had been a Roman province for over three hundred years. Native Britons and Romans had intermingled and inter-married and most had adopted Roman habits and material culture. However, this hoard and a large number of other silver hoards were buried at a time when Britain was passing out of Roman control. Roman rule was breaking down in Britain, leaving the Romano-British without any help from Rome to defend themselves from the attacks of outsiders such as the Anglo-Saxons, Irish and Picts.

As archaeologists excavated the hoard, they found the remains of a large wooden chest and smaller caskets with tiny silver padlocks, into which the hoard had been packed. The careful burial of this treasure probably means that the owner had buried it for safekeeping and intended to come back and recover it later, but for whatever reason was unable to do so.

More information

The Hoxne hoard
Images and information about the other objects in the hoard.
http://www.britishmuseum.org/explore/highlights/articles/h/the_hoxne_hoard.aspx

History of the World in 100 Objects
The Hoxne pepper pot on the BBC History of the World in 100 Objects: listen to the programme or read the transcript.
http://www.bbc.co.uk/ahistoryoftheworld/objects/PJvWylU-Tlm_mo0HRFjbHw

The Mildenhall treasure
Another late Roman hoard found in Suffolk.
http://www.britishmuseum.org/explore/highlights/articles/m/the_mildenhall_treasure.aspx

The Thetford treasure
A late Roman hoard found in Thetford, Norfolk.
http://www.britishmuseum.org/explore/highlights/highlight_objects/pe_prb/l/spoons_from_thetford_treasure.aspx

Decline of Roman Britain
BBC history: information about the decline of Roman Britain.
BBC history: information about the decline of Roman Britain.

After the Romans
BBC history: information about what happened after the Roman’s left Britain.
http://www.bbc.co.uk/history/ancient/romans/late_01.shtml

Anglo-Saxons
BBC history: a brief introduction to the withdrawal of the Roman armies from Britain and the Anglo-Saxon invasions, 410 to 800.
http://www.bbc.co.uk/history/ancient/anglo_saxons/overview_anglo_saxons_01.shtml

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Roman silver pepper pot