A few weeks ago my husband and I went to the Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art in Kansas City to see the exhibit of Roman Empire luxuries—gold jewelry, silver platters, bronze statuettes, and other artifacts. I was most impressed with the jewelry.
I don’t wear much jewelry other than earrings, but I drooled over the Roman necklaces and bracelets. Most were made of gold and many were encrusted with gems. They would be fabulous if created today, and realizing that they were made 2000 years ago put me in awe. Their appeal transcends the centuries.
Which made me think that people haven’t changed that much in two millennia. Our notions of beauty and adornment aren’t much different. The size of the pieces are comparable to a lot of 21st-century jewelry items, and, indeed, they wouldn’t look out-of-place in many of our social gatherings (if one could afford them).
Despite the appeal of these pieces—which I assume was as great during the Roman Empire years as it is today—they were lost for over a millennium. Some of the items from the exhibit were found in Brittany in France in 1774, and analysis showed they were probably buried in about 275 C.E. And more necklaces from around 200 C.E. were found in eastern France in 1809.
So these items were probably in the ground for about 1500 years. What made their owners bury them? What happened to the owners that they could not retrieve them?
Another necklace of Roman coins came from an Egyptian tomb outside Alexandria, and dates back to about 240 C.E. This piece is similar to the coin pendants found in France, and is of the same era. That makes me think of how vast the Roman Empire was—from Alexandria to Brittany. And in a day without modern communications.
Some of the silver was found in Berthouville in northwestern France in 1830 by a farmer plowing his field. The happenstance of this discovery boggles my mind. Why hadn’t earlier generations of farmers found the silver?
The value of the 54 pounds of silver pieces found in Berthouville has been equated to the annual salary of 30 soldiers. In today’s terms, a U.S. Army E-4 corporal makes about $33,000/year, so thirty soldiers make about $1 million/year. Still a fortune worth hiding. Again, why was the silver buried, and why wasn’t it reclaimed by its owners?
Thinking of the historical developments during the Roman Empire period also impressed me. Greek and Roman gods were depicted on the early coin jewelry created in the mid-200s C.E. One of the later pieces in the exhibit was a Christian paten from Constantinople in about 500 C.E. The shift from paganism to Christianity must have revolutionized their culture. But was that change more significant or less than what the “modern” era has seen in the 240 years since the signing of the Declaration of Independence?
And then I thought, what else might be buried from past cultures? And which of our treasures might find their way into a museum 1500 years from now?
Many questions. Some might be answered by future generations. Some might never be answered.
The Nelson-Atkins exhibit is entitled “Luxury Treasures of the Roman Empire,” and it lasts until October 2, 2016. If you’re in the Kansas City area, go see it!
When have you been impressed by ancient artifacts?