Stolen Roman horse tack

Roman horse tack from Swaledale now at the Yorkshire Museum in York. Image copyright York Museums Trust.

Roman horse tack from Swaledale now at the Yorkshire Museum in York. Image copyright York Museums Trust.

A hoard of metal horse-harness fittings, thought to have been stolen from the Roman army, was found near the village of Fremington in Swaledale sometime around 1830. Today the pieces remain securely housed in two museums, although details of the precise circumstances of the find have been lost.

The first comprehensive analysis of the items was published in 1971 by G A Webster in the book Soldier and Civilian in Roman Yorkshire, edited by R M Butler. Webster had found a fleeting reference to the find in the 1833 records of the museum of the Yorkshire Philosophical Society at York. The first helpful information he found was published in a catalogue of the museum’s holdings in 1852, which read: ‘Several specimens of silvered horse furniture, ornamented with slightly engraved patterns. Found on Fremington Hagg, near Reeth in Swaledale. Presented by Capt. Harland.’

The donor was presumably Captain John Harland (1788-1875), a well-known dalesman who after serving as a soldier in the Napoleonic Wars settled to a very active life in the Reeth area. He was chairman of the Reeth Poor Law Union, and the compiler of the Glossary of Swaledale Dialect Words (Edmund Cooper, A History of Swaledale, 1973, p67).

Webster noted that the collection of Roman horse tack held at what is now called the Yorkshire Museum, probably contains more pieces than were originally found at Fremington by Captain Harland, although records of other donations to the museum do not exist. He identified 75 pendants, roundels, strips and studs that he felt were likely to have belonged to the original hoard, and noted that seven of these had been given to the British Museum in 1880.

He described their construction as copper alloy decorated with silver gilding and with engravings highlighted with niello (a black metallic compound). Webster dated the fittings to before 69 AD, i.e. before the completion of the Roman conquest of this part of the north. He surmised that the hoard was probably the enterprise of a looter from the equipment of Roman cavalrymen who had been sent to quell a local revolt.

As a consequence of Webster’s article, the British Museum conducted a detailed scientific analysis of comparable samples from the London and York collections to test whether they did in fact belong to the same hoard. The results were published in the British Museum Quarterly, vol. 37, summer 1973, and confirmed that the metal compositions were so similar as to suggest “that not only were they cast in the same workshop, but also from the same crucible of metal.”

Of the fittings held by the Yorkshire Museum, currently three are on display in the permanent exhibition, in case 13 of the Roman section. The remainder are held in store but the curator kindly gave me permission to photograph a selection of them for uploading to the Swaledale and Arkengarthdale Archaeology Group (SWAAG) web site.

The images, although made by me, are the copyright of York Museums Trust. One of them is embedded above from the SWAAG website, where the copyright of the York Museums Trust is also acknowledged. It shows a selection of the most attractive-looking items in the collection, including at bottom right an iron pendant featuring a female face, which may not have been in the original hoard. Above it is a copper alloy terret ring for holding chariot reins.

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About Will Swales

Amateur historian with a special interest in Swaledale, Yorkshire.
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