The recently announced discovery of a hoard of late Roman (circa 407-406 AD) gold and silver objects — dug up by an unnamed metal detectorist in the forest near Ruelzheim, in Germany’s southwestern Rhineland-Palatinate state — is both thrilling and appalling.
The news is thrilling due to the nature of the hoard. The date of the objects makes the discovery unique in Germany. The importance of the objects in the hoard is second only to the 1868 discovery of a 1st century AD imperial Roman silver hoard known as the Hildesheim Treasure.
The “Ruelzheim Treasure” reportedly consists of: three dozen solid gold pendants shaped like leaves (each with seven points); a large quantity of square pyramidal shaped gold buttons, which probably adorned a ceremonial tunic of Roman design; a silver-gilt dish cut into pieces in ancient times (probably to be sold as bullion); a solid silver bowl inlaid with semi-precious stones; a crumpled silver chest plate (probably used as decorative armor); several gold and silver statuettes; and — the most amazing survivor of all — a folding silver bench, known as a curule seat, which reportedly survived intact … that is, until the untrained individual with the metal detector tried to remove it from the ground and broke it into pieces.
News of the discovery is also appalling, not only due to the destroyed silver curule seat, but, more importantly, because the priceless information contained at the archeological site where the hoard was buried has been ruined by the metal detectorist, who removed everything of value that he could find. Soon the amateur was visited by German authorities after they learned that attempts were being made to sell the objects on the black market.
The objects were buried near an old Roman road at the time of an epic encounter known as the Battle of Mainz — which pitted the Franks against an alliance of Vandals, Suevi and Alans near the banks of the Rhine River. Thirty thousand Vandals were said to have been killed during the battle, which culminated on December 31, 406 when the Vandal alliance crossed the Rhine westward into Gaul, forever ending Roman military and political control in that part of Europe. Little wonder that someone—a fleeing Roman magistrate, petit royalty, or bandits perhaps?—would bury a gold and silver treasure near the side of a road but not survive long enough to retrieve it.
As valuable as the “Ruelzheim Treasure” may be in merchant circles, its archaeological and historical value would have been much greater if the integrity of the site had been maintained so that it could be scientifically excavated.
How much damage was done by the amateur with the metal detector? The importance of the various objects in relationship to one another may have been indicated by the burial arrangement. But the site has been destroyed, so that information is lost. Clues to the identity, rank or status of its late 4th – early 5th century AD owner may have been deduced by archaeologists at the burial site. But the site has been destroyed, so that information is lost. Other items that may have existed at the burial site, such as ceremonial clothing and jewelry, have not been reported. The looter may have discarded or sold these items before the authorities found him.
The very idea that an amateur would discover a 5th century Roman silver curule seat, then destroy it by trying to pull it from a burial spot, boggles the mind.
As the History Blog tartly observes: “The site itself was deliberately damaged. Boy, would I love to see this thief prosecuted just for doing that.” Would anyone disagree?
Meanwhile, the search for artifacts and relics in German forests and fields by clandestine metal detectorists continues. More than 21,400 videos of these activities can be viewed on YouTube. Soon, the number of videos will equal the number of Vandals who died at the Battle of Mainz on the last day of December in the year 406 AD.