British Museum blog

From Parthian chicken to flat breads: experimenting with a Roman oven

Heat, steam and Roman cookingSally Grainger, chef and author

In previous posts I introduced the different types of ancient portable ovens which are generally called either clibanus or testum. The former term is the more fashionable Latinised Greek word while testum represents the Italian tradition for these ovens.

Currently on display in the Life and death in Pompeii and Herculaneum exhibition at the British Museum, there is a unique double casserole/oven with a base and domed top. In this post I will discuss the results of preliminary experiments I’ve been undertaking with a replica of this so-called clibanus oven.

A clibanus oven over charcoal

This oven appears to be designed to allow fire to be above and below the food being cooked. This concept is found in recipes in the Roman cookery book known as Apicius for a dish called a patina which is a thick frittata cooked in a vessel of the same name. The instructions are as follows: ‘grease a clean dish and put it in the hot embers, pour the mixture in, allow the embers to be above and below (the dish).’

Readers of Apicius are not told precisely how this may happen but we can imagine the dish must have had a lid for the fire to be on top of the food. There are many North African-ware lidded casseroles that would suit this technique, with a small base that sat in the embers on the hearth and curved walls to allow embers to be pushed beneath the vessel, from the Roman period. The lids had a slightly curved outer rim which would have kept the embers away from the food when the lid was removed: a design feature similar to the flanged single oven I described in my second post. I have experimented with this technique too using a vessel created by Chris Lydamore and found it very successful.

Line drawing

Line illustrations taken from my edition of the Latin text of Apicius shown here demonstrate just how versatile this kind of equipment can be. The single testum/clibanus can function with a completely separate smaller dish inside and what seems to have happened with this new vessel is that the roasting dish becomes integrated as a double unit.

Line drawing

In Apicius the foods described as being cooked in a clibanus like this one are generally rather small and defined as roasting or pot roasting. Recipes include a dry roasted, stuffed dormouse (Ap. 8.9); stuffed kidneys roasted in oil and fish sauce (Ap. 7.8); a neck joint also cooked in a layer of sauce (Ap. 7.5.5) and a boned stuffed kid (Ap. 8.6.6).

Line drawing

Initially I tried a favourite dish known as ‘Parthian chicken’; technically a ‘pot roast’ (Apicius 6.8.3). Chicken pieces are cooked in a ceramic dish in a mixture of wine and fish sauce with caraway, lovage, asafoetida and pepper. We are simply told to cook it without any indication as to whether it’s on a heat source or in one. I found straight away that I had to provide twice the space and twice the fire size to heat both pieces of this new vessel in the same way as I would for the single oven.

This implies a more sophisticated kitchen with a greater volume of fire at the disposal of the cook. The recipe does not suggest you fry the meat first but I tried by adding oil and heating the bottom dish and found that this was very possible. When the vessel was put together, despite the flat base which prevents the embers going right underneath it, the fire is still able to be placed under and on top of the wide flange and as the fire must also be placed on the lid, we can assume that it’s possible to have three levels of fire around the dish with the potential to create an intense level of heat.

Oven with charcoal beneath and on top of it

As the cooking progressed I was able to check inside and found that the sauce was simmering consistently all around the meat and generating plenty of steam which, in a similar way to a traditional tagine, gathers in the dome and falls back into the dish, preventing the meat from drying out. The chicken legs cooked in 45 minutes to a degree whereby the leg bone came out of the meat when pulled which was quite impressive!

Chicken cooking in the oven

In order to test the vessel for its dry baking efficiency I heated both pieces as before but left the base vessel for longer. It was clear from other cooking experiments I had conducted with Roman ceramic vessels over charcoal that when the fabric stays dry over intense radiant heat it is much more fragile and susceptible to cracking. Which, sadly, happened. The base vessel cracked quite quickly but only from one side and the subsequent bake was completed. I did not get that wonderful perky ‘lift’ one expects of a bake stone but as the dome is quite shallow it does not seem to me likely that the vessel was used to bake risen loaves of bread.

Flatter bread is generally baked with a drop scone technique on an open bake stone and the lid is unnecessary. In my experiments the colour and crust came out quite good and the crumb light and airy. I need to bake more bread in the vessel and also attempt to bake other cakes such as the libum ‘Roman cheese cake’ in order to determine whether baking was truly possible in these vessels.

Bread in the oven

First thoughts after cooking with the vessel three times now? It is super-efficient as a general purpose casserole for what we would call ‘pot roasting’: roasting in small amounts of liquid. It has proved less effective as a dry oven whether it be for meat or bread and cakes.

The naming of things and in fact the concept of defining the purpose of an artefact from the past is very problematic as we almost always use modern concepts to define ancient things and this can interfere with our interpretation. So for instance today we bake in an oven, but stew or braise in a casserole. A casserole generally functions today with wet food or sauces and either inside an oven with a radiant heat source or above a heat source on a hob. Rarely does it function as an oven in itself as the ancient casseroles seem to do when the fire is in direct contact with the vessel.

I think we can be fairly certain that the vessel in the exhibition is a form of clibanus but that term seems to be rather more complex than simply a ‘portable oven’. It might be better to define this ancient clibanus not as an oven at all but as a ‘tagine’.

Drawings by Dan Shadrake

Silver service: fine dining in Roman Britain is on display at the British Museum
until 4 August 2013.

The Asahi Shimbun Displays

If you would like to leave a comment click on the title

Filed under: Exhibitions, Mildenhall treasure, Research,

A very versatile Roman oven

A very versatile Roman ovenSally Grainger, chef and author

In my previous post about Roman cooking I described a type of oven used to bake and roast food about 2,000 years ago. Known as a clibanus it was a sophisticated piece of cooking technology most likely used by the wealthy, and one with which I have spent many years experimenting.

These ovens were made with very course gritted clay and ranged in size from 15-50 cm in diameter, with walls of up to 10 cm high. A central hole seems to have been for regulating the temperature and could also allow cooks to keep an eye on the food baking inside. A flange allowed the fire to be placed on the top of the oven.

A replica oven being used

A replica oven being used

The sites in Italy where these ovens have been identified tend to be rather elite villa complexes where one could imagine the baking of delicate cakes and also warm bread for dinner. It is not necessarily apparent that these ovens were used by the less well off as a means of cooking simpler fair, and it is often assumed that they took their bread to be baked at large bakery complexes in towns, while we do not know what the rural poor did about baking at home. There was an assumption that they didn’t eat bread but made puls wheat porridge in a cooking pot over a wood fire.

The poem attributed to Virgil called moretum suggests that a relatively lowly market gardener baked his bread sub testu: under one of these ovens, though the status of this man is quite difficult to determine. He is considered a peasant, but he sells his produce in town and comes home with a heavy purse on occasion. Identifying these ovens is also not easy as they often come to pieces after prolonged use and recognising the shards (broken pieces) as testa (ovens) is problematic.

There is quite a detailed description of this oven in use in an agricultural manual written by Cato the Elder, in 150 BC. The recipe is for a special sacrificial cake called rather unfortunately placenta: the reason for which is another story altogether. It is a complex layered construction with sweet pasta sheets and cheese and honey bound in an outer pastry shell which might best be described as a round cheese strudel. While being constructed, the cook is advised to ‘heat the hearth and the testum where you are to cook’. Then ‘make the hearth ready beforehand and place the placenta on it, cover with a heated testum and place hot coals on top and around it’ (i).

From original drawings and reconstructed ovens the instructions on how to use it seemed quite logical, although my initial experiments were rather haphazard. I used a wood fire at first and rapidly broke the first oven I owned – we find evidence of metal versions of these ovens in Greece which could be used with a wood fire but ceramic, even very coarse material as these were, could not tolerate an open flame for long. Subsequently I used charcoal with much greater success.

Now I bake so often it has become second nature. The oven needs to be raised above the fire in order to be heated, so a trivet is used. Leaving the vessel directly on the fire caused rapid heat differential which caused cracking and sometimes put the fire that was inside the dome out.

A replica oven being used

A replica oven being used

I left the oven to heat over a charcoal fire and found that the hole acted as a chimney to draw the fire quite well. After a time it seemed better to close the hole and keep the heat in. The hearth I used was a raised platform and its position was crucial as a strong draft also helped the fire to heat. After about an hour or sometimes longer when the heat from the surface caused our spit to sizzle – a past visit to a wood-fired bakery had already told me that when the roof of these ovens is white hot that is when the baker knows it is ready to use.

At this point the hearth needs to be prepared which meant cleaning away the fire so that the cake or bread could go directly onto a tile or ceramic hearth. The fire was brushed aside to make space as big as the oven, and my freshly proved loaf or a Roman cake called a libum was placed on this hot surface with a bay leaf beneath for flavour.

The oven is put back over the cake and then the fire is piled around the sides and on top. A good bake requires good quality ‘restaurant charcoal’ (heavier and therefore long lasting) to retain plenty of latent energy. It is then possible to place fresh charcoal close to the already alight coals so that a continuous fire can be maintained. The remaining embers and smaller pieces of charcoal are pushed around the sides of the oven evenly spaced so that no area is left unheated. Doing this I was able to reach 410F (210C) on a regular basis when baking bread, so could then bake and roast very efficiently.

I can only indicate the quality of the bake by offering the following:

The crust on my sour dough was beautifully thick and crisp even when cooled; meat on the legs of a small chicken roasted for 45 minutes in a dish rather than directly on the hearth, fell to pieces; a lamb shank cooked for one and a quarter hours was similarly tender, and belly pork fell apart and had super crackling after the same amount of time.

Over the years I have come to the conclusion that the relatively small space inside the oven is such that any potential moisture both from bread and also meat is retained around the food being cooked so that a steam/roast/bake process is going on. Bakers know of course that you need steam to create a good crust and now it has become common to find modern catering ovens with added steam.

All manner of complicated techniques are used to achieve the desired moist atmosphere yet 2,000 years ago the Romans had invented the technique already.

i. C. Grocock and S Grainger, 2002 Moretum: a peasant lunch revisited. The meal: proceedings of the oxford symposium on food and cookery 2001, Prospect books Totnes, pp.95-104.

Silver service: fine dining in Roman Britain is on display at the British Museum
until 4 August 2013.

The Asahi Shimbun Displays

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Heat, steam and Roman cooking

Heat, steam and Roman cookingSally Grainger, chef and author

There are two exhibitions on at the British Museum at the moment which relate to the theme of Roman cooking and dining.

Silver service: fine dining in Roman Britain evokes a late Roman dining room, including a partial reconstruction of a curved dining couch, or stibadium, arranged around the Great Dish from the Mildenhall treasure. Many have puzzled as to how these huge silver platters were used: what kinds of food, if any, were placed on them and was it acceptable to cover up the fine carving?

Having spent many years studying and experimenting to understand what Romans ate and how they prepared and made it, my particular interest is not so much with the outward service of the food, but the actual cooking process. It is clear from ancient texts that the preparation of dishes for fine dining was very sophisticated with intricate vessels combining steam and oven heat and also gentle delicate poaching and simmering: techniques one does not normally associate with ancient cultures.

Food also features heavily in Life and death in Pompeii and Herculaneum, which has a unique and inspired focus as Dr Paul Roberts, curator, has re-created the shell of a Roman home, each room containing the artefacts associated with the function of that room.

When I visited, I entered the kitchen room with huge anticipation. I was not disappointed: a good selection of bronze cooking pans, and food residues of all kinds including one of those wonderful carbonised loaves of bread and dried fruits, seeds and nuts which are so perfectly recognisable. The cooking equipment is very fine; a compact little portable brazier that appears to be the kind shared around by the tenement dwellers, and most importantly for me a double clibanus or portable oven/ casserole.

Many years ago, Dr Roberts was responsible, along with two other archaeologists, in reporting on these ovens and had alluded to the idea of a double one, but no drawings existed and I had long been impatient to see one (i). He tells me that when he found this oven in the Naples store he just had to have it for the exhibition and I am so grateful that he did as it is a beautiful piece of cooking technology that I am eager to experiment with.

Many years ago now I had one of the more common single bodied clibanus ovens made by potter Andrew Macdonald. Since then these ovens have spread among the Roman historical re-enactment fraternity and I see them wherever Roman cooking is demonstrated. Over the years I have had numerous versions made (as they inevitably fall apart under the thermal shock) and have also developed the skills needed to bake and roast in them and written about these experiences in my own publications on Roman food (ii).

Replica of a double clibanus oven

Replica of a double clibanus oven

On Sunday 19 May I received a replica of a double clibanus made just three weeks after the Pompeii and Herculaneum exhibition opened, by potter Chris Lydamore whose creations are highly valued as museum replicas as well as by historical re-constructionists.

My first experiments with this new piece will be reported on here soon. But as a preliminary I will start with a look at how the single-bodied oven works.

i. Cubberley et al 1988 AL Cubberly, J.A Lloyd, P.C. Roberts, Testa and clibani: the baking covers of classical Italy. Papers of the British school at Rome 61, pp. 98-119

ii. C. Grocock, and S. Grainger. 2006. Apicius: a Critical Edition with Introduction and English Translation. Totnes: Prospect Books. Grainger, S. 1999 Cato’s roman cheesecakes: the baking techniques, Milk:beyond the dairy, Proceedings of the Oxford Symposium on food and cookery, Prospect books Totnes, pp.168-178

Silver service: fine dining in Roman Britain is on display at the British Museum
until 4 August 2013.

The Asahi Shimbun Displays

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Illustrating the discovery of the Mildenhall treasure

Mildenhall Great Dish Ralph Steadman, artist

Who knows when one ploughs a field what may be unearthed? This is what attracted me to the Roald Dahl story of the Mildenhall treasure.

Illustration of the discovery of the Mildenhall treasure. Images and text courtesy of Ralph Steadman

Illustration of the discovery of the Mildenhall treasure.

The ploughman, Gordon Butcher, was the lucky finder of the treasure that was unexpectedly revealed and now resides in the British Museum. When Roald Dahl first read the newspaper account of it, he called on Mr Butcher who at first was reluctant to talk to him as he thought he was just another reporter.

The Great dish from the Mildenhall treasure. Images and text courtesy of Ralph Steadman

The Great dish from the Mildenhall treasure.

Dahl assured Butcher that he was a short story writer and promised that he would sell the story to the US magazine The Saturday Evening Post. They would share the fee. Mr Butcher was delighted and wrote to tell him so on receipt of the cheque.

I got to know Liccy Dahl who allowed me to visit Roald’s small shed at the bottom of their garden and his writing chair that had been adapted to support the weakness in his back and which was still in place. I imagined him going there daily to write.

Illustration of the discovery of the Mildenhall treasure. Images and text courtesy of Ralph Steadman

Illustration of the discovery of the Mildenhall treasure.

I visited a local farm museum and sketched different pieces of farm machinery that would have been used at the time. I spent a few days at Mildenhall and its environs, including the museum, to capture how it would have been in the 1940s. It was important to give my drawings the authentic feeling for the flat Suffolk landscape and its inhabitants. Finally I went to see the Mildenhall treasure itself at the British Museum and was stunned by the richness and craftsmanship of the collection.

Images and text courtesy of Ralph Steadman

Silver service: fine dining in Roman Britain is on display at the British Museum
until 4 August 2013.

The Asahi Shimbun Displays

STEADman@77, a Ralph Steadman Retrospective, is on display at London’s Cartoon Museum until 21 July.

Filed under: Exhibitions, Mildenhall treasure, ,

The Mildenhall treasure

Mildenhall Great Dish Richard Hobbs, exhibition curator, British Museum

This week, the display Silver service: fine dining in Roman Britain opened. It features the magnificent Great Dish from the Mildenhall treasure, an example of the type of large, silver platter which may have been used to impress the guests of a wealthy family at a dinner party in the late fourth century AD. It’s an exhibition about dining and entertainment – and there’ll be more posts on this in the coming weeks.

The Great dish from the Mildenhall treasure.

The Great dish from the Mildenhall treasure.

The treasure at the centre of the display will be known to many people because of the writer Roald Dahl’s story about its discovery during the Second World War. In a previous blog post, I talked about my first encounter with this treasure, which came about when reading the short story when I was eight years old. It often strikes me as a perfect example of the vicissitudes of life that I could never have imagined, as a child like countless others reading Dahl’s story, that one day I would be in charge of looking after the Mildenhall treasure, the subject of Dahl’s piece! My only regret is that I was unable to talk to Dahl about the story direct – he died in 1990, some time before I became a curator here at the British Museum, and long before I became interested in the circumstances of its discovery.

But one person who did meet Dahl, specifically to talk about his story ‘the Mildenhall Treasure’, was John Gadd, a journalist and agricultural consultant. The British Museum acquired Gadd’s archive in 2008, with the support of the Friends of the British Museum – Gadd in turn had acquired the material in the 1970s. The archive consists of papers, letters, maps, photographs and memoranda belonging to an archaeologist called Thomas Lethbridge, whose connection with Mildenhall was his excavation of a Roman building in the 1930s, in proximity to the discovery of the treasure many years later. In Lethbridge’s papers, there was a considerable amount of correspondence concerning the discovery of the Mildenhall treasure, and the uncertainties surrounding the exact place of finding. In time, this led to Gadd becoming interested in the wider story of the Mildenhall treasure, which in turn led him to Dahl’s short story.

As I explained in my earlier post, Dahl based his story on an interview with Gordon Butcher, the tractor driver who found the treasure during the Second World War. Gadd wanted to find out if Dahl had any notes or other information beyond the published story, so he wrote to Dahl to find out. Such notes may have been important, because obviously Dahl was unlikely to have included everything in the final published version – maybe Dahl therefore, Gadd reasoned, had additional ‘inside information’. The British Museum possesses a few letters written from Dahl to Gadd in 1977, specifically concerning his story about the Mildenhall treasure; two were written before the first edition of ‘The Wonderful Story of Henry Sugar and six more’, the first edition of the book in which ‘The Mildenhall Treasure’ was re-published (the original version of the story appeared in an American magazine, ‘The Saturday Evening Post’, in 1947).

The first letter is written by hand, and as can be seen from the transcript, was penned from Dahl’s hospital bed as he was recovering from a hip replacement operation – the hand-writing itself has a decidedly ‘woozy’ appearance, hardly surprising under the circumstances.

© Roald Dahl Nominee Ltd

© Roald Dahl Nominee Ltd

Transcription:
c.13th March 1977
King Edward VII Hospital
Midhurst, Sussex

Dear Mr. Gadd

Sorry this messy reply. The Brit. Museum have hundreds of excellent photos of the Mildenhall Treasure. I’ve just got a new lot of them myself because I’ve rewritten that little piece for a new book of stories for older children. I have no notes. Nothing. Only the original long-ago article. I fear I would be of little use to you re. Mr. Lethbridge. I’ve just had a beastly hip replacement operation & for good measure pleuritis & an embolism on the leg.

Roald Dahl

The other letter Dahl sent to Gadd when home recuperating is typed and invited Gadd to talk directly to Dahl, which eventually he did.

© Roald Dahl Nominee Ltd

© Roald Dahl Nominee Ltd

Sadly, Dahl could not find any of his ‘original notes’ – but we’re nonetheless fortunate to have these documents, given the importance to the literary world of the man who wrote them. All this shows how discovering the truth about past events is a challenge – whether it’s researching the 2,000 year old dish at the centre of the exhibition, or looking back 60 years to establish the events surrounding the treasure’s discovery.

Silver service: fine dining in Roman Britain is on display at the British Museum
until 4 August 2013.

The Asahi Shimbun Displays

Find out more about Roald Dahl and the Mildenhall treasure
Roald Dahl Museum & Story Centre

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New treasure!


Richard Hobbs, curator, British Museum

‘New treasure!’ was the title of an email I received two weeks ago from a colleague. It refers to a new hoard, or ‘treasure’, of late Roman silver plate, recently discovered in Croatia at Vinkovci. In Roman times the town was known as Colonia Aurelia Cibalae (Cibalae for short) in the Roman province of Pannonia. Cibalae was the birthplace of the Roman emperors Valentian I and his younger brother Valens (both AD 364-375). The Cibalae treasure dates to around a similar time, i.e. the fourth century AD.

My Croatian being non-existent I’ve managed via ‘Google Translate’ to glean that the treasure was discovered during rescue excavations in advance of construction right in the centre of Vinkovci, then transported under armed guard to the Mimara Museum in Zagreb where it is now on display to the public. It consists of about 50 items of silver tableware weighing a total of around 30 kilos. For comparison, the Mildenhall treasure, the treasure I am currently researching, has about half that number of objects, but weighs almost as much (around 26kg). It is clear from the images that many of the objects are rather damaged and heavily tarnished, but cleaning and restoration over the coming months will no doubt do much to rectify this.

The Cibalae Treasure. Photo courtesy Steve Gaunt

The Cibalae Treasure. Photo courtesy Steve Gaunt

A more perfect set of circumstances surrounding the discovery of such a treasure could not be dreamed of. It is, to put it mildly, highly unusual for a silver treasure of this magnitude to be found at all, let alone by professional archaeologists. Such discoveries are exceedingly rare: the daily diet of most archaeologists is lots of pottery and animal bone, the occasional find of low value metalwork (perhaps an iron nail, or a copper brooch or coin). Even single finds of gold and silver objects are rarely found, let alone entire hoards. And because it has been excavated by professionals, we are likely to know a great deal more about it: we know exactly where it was buried, how deep it lay in the ground, and how it might have been buried, for example there might still be traces of a container in which it had been placed. In contrast such information relating to the burial circumstances of the Mildenhall treasure is sadly lacking.

Photo courtesy Steve Gaunt

Photo courtesy Steve Gaunt

The exact contents of the treasure will become clear in the next few weeks, months and years as the painstaking process of conservation and research is carried out. At the moment, I have to content myself with scrutinising the few images which have emerged from TV and newspaper reports. I can see, for example, that the Cibalae treasure has three large platters and at least two wide and deep bowls – in comparison the Mildenhall treasure has only two platters. It has at least another dozen smaller bowls and dishes – Mildenhall has six. It has many other vessels which are not represented in the Mildenhall treasure, but are paralleled in other treasures: these include silver beakers, also known from the Kaiseraugst treasure, discovered in Switzerland in the early 1960s; at least two silver jugs, also known in other treasures; and a number of spoons and ladles, again similar in appearance to ones known in other treasures. Most intriguingly, there are some pieces which are nicely decorated: one shows what appears to be Bellerophon slaying the chimera. This scene is in the centre of a platter with a very unusual flat rim decorated with a dozen recesses in the shape of scallop shells.

Even more exciting perhaps is a pastoral scene in the centre of another platter, which shows a shepherd leaning on a crook and surrounded by sheep: as my colleague Chris Entwistle, the curator of our Byzantine collections suggested, it would be tempting to think of the Parable of the Good Shepherd. If this is the case, it would be a very rare example of a Biblical scene on late Roman silver plate.

It’s early days in the life of this new discovery. Maybe in the next few months I will be able to see the treasure for myself.

Richard Hobbs is curator of Romano-British collections and is currently on a British Academy Mid-Career Fellowship to publish the Mildenhall treasure

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Roald Dahl and the Mildenhall treasure


Richard Hobbs, curator, British Museum

My first encounter with the Mildenhall treasure was back in 1977 when I was eight years old. I received a copy of the new Roald Dahl book, an author of whom, like many children of my generation, I was a huge fan. ‘The Wonderful story of Henry Sugar and six more’ was a collection of short stories (I still have it; perhaps it’s worth something, as a first edition) which bear more relation with Dahl’s rather macabre tales aimed at adults than the timeless classics for children such as ‘Charlie and the Chocolate Factory’ or ‘James and the Giant Peach’. Henry Sugar is a story about a man who discovers the ability to see through playing cards, and uses his gift to win vast sums of money in casinos. After the buzz of winning wears off, he starts to use his newly found wealth for acts of philanthropy: first giving his money away to random strangers (the cover depicts Sugar throwing wads of £20 notes out of a high storey window), then building orphanages.

The Mildenhall treasure is one of the most important collections of late-Roman silver tableware from the Roman Empire.

The Mildenhall treasure is one of the most important collections of late-Roman silver tableware from the Roman Empire.

But I was more drawn to one of the other stories in the collection, simply entitled ‘The Mildenhall treasure’, and about a rather different type of discovery, the discovery of treasure: one of the few stories of Dahl’s career as a writer he based on real events.

As Dahl explains in his preface, he decided to re-publish the story, with a few tweaks, because this was not the first time the story had an airing. In fact, ‘The Mildenhall treasure’ (then entitled ‘He plowed [sic] up $1,000,000’) was one of the first pieces of journalism he ever sold as a fledgling writer in the immediate post-war years – Dahl was a fighter pilot in the RAF – to an American magazine called ‘The Saturday Evening Post’. In both versions Dahl creates a narrative around the discovery of the hoard of late Roman silver in the winter of 1942 at the height of the Second World War by local farmer, Gordon Butcher, subsequently excavated by Butcher and his boss Sidney Ford. (The story was republished for a third time in 1999, this time as a stand-alone book with illustrations by Ralph Steadman).

Dahl’s story stayed with me, and in the late 1980s when I was studying for an archaeology degree at University College London, I recalled Dahl’s story when the Mildenhall treasure was mentioned during a lecture on the archaeology of the later Roman Empire, taught by the legendary Richard Reece. Richard also alluded to a conspiracy theory surrounding the discovery of the treasure, saying that many believed it had been flown in to the military airbase at Mildenhall from somewhere in the Mediterranean, perhaps North Africa. I remember saying to him: ‘But what about Roald Dahl’s story? Surely that describes very plausibly how it was discovered?’, or words to that effect. My comment was met with a blank look. It only occurred to me afterwards that Richard had never come across Dahl’s ‘account’: it was, after all, published in a book for children.

The Great dish from the Mildenhall treasure.

The Great dish from the Mildenhall treasure.

Of course, staff at the British Museum knew the story very well, having been contacted about it by countless school children over the years. Indeed to this day many children, having read the story, are drawn to the Roman Britain gallery to see the treasure for themselves. But how valuable is Dahl’s account? Although his intention was first and foremost to tell a good yarn, it is not without worth to archaeologists seeking the ‘truth’ about the discovery. This is because it was based on what may have been the only interview with Gordon Butcher, the original finder of the treasure. As Dahl explains in his preface, he drove to Mildenhall having read about the discovery in the Times, persuaded Gordon Butcher to talk to him, faithfully noted down everything Butcher said, and, in Dahl’s own words, ‘wrote the story as truthfully as I possibly could’.

Having successfully sold it to the American magazine, he shared the fee he received with Butcher who sent Dahl a note saying ‘you could have knocked me over with a feather when I saw your cheque’. But because Butcher’s boss Sidney Ford, not Butcher, took the treasure home, after the treasure emerged from hiding in 1946 the focus shifted to Ford, and Butcher’s part in the whole affair was rather overlooked. It appears that no-one, particularly the archaeologists who investigated the circumstances surrounding the discovery, thought to ask Butcher what he recalled of the moment when his plough struck something in the ground – no-one except Roald Dahl.

Dahl himself came to see the treasure in 1946 when it was first put on display. Of the experience, he writes: ‘It was fabulous. I got the shivers… just from looking at it.’ He was not the first to be affected in this way and certainly not the last – myself included.

Richard Hobbs is curator of Romano-British collections and is currently on a British Academy Mid-Career Fellowship to publish the Mildenhall treasure

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Filed under: Archaeology, Mildenhall treasure, Research, , ,

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