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Episode 40 - Hoxne pepper pot

Hoxne pepper pot (made fourth century AD). Silver; found in Suffolk, England

For thousands of years western Europeans have been entranced by the spices of the east. Long before curry became the British national dish, we dreamed of transforming our dull island food with exotic flavours from India. For the poet George Herbert, the phrase "the land of spices" evoked a metaphorical perfection at once unimaginably remote and infinitely desirable. So it's perhaps not surprising that spice has, through the centuries, always been not just high poetry but big business. The spice trade between the Far East and Europe funded the Portuguese and Dutch empires and provoked many bloody wars. Already at the beginning of the fifth century, it was a trade that embraced the whole of the Roman Empire. When in 408 barbarian Visigoths attacked the city of Rome, they were induced to leave only on the payment of a huge ransom that included gold, silver, large quantities of silk and one further luxury, a ton of pepper. This precious spice had made its lucrative way all over the Roman Empire, from India to East Anglia. And that's where this programme's object was found.

"The trade was very important to the Romans and they made a lot of profit from it." (Roberta Tomber)

"They just couldn't get enough of it, wars were fought over it. And if you look at Roman recipes, every one starts with: 'Take pepper and mix with ...'." (Christine McFadden)

This week we've travelled the globe, looking at objects of leisure and pleasure from around the world about two thousand years ago. We began with sex and feasting near Jerusalem in what was then the Roman Middle East. We've been to North America for tobacco smoking, moved to Mexico for early team sports, and then went on to the moralising pleasures of painting and poetry in China. Today, I'm back with the Romans, in what they might have called the Far West, what we think of as Suffolk.

We are around the year 400, and in England centuries of unprecedented peace and prosperity are about to end in chaos. Across Western Europe the Roman Empire is fragmenting into a series of failed states, and in Britain the Roman leadership is conducting a phased withdrawal. At moments like this it is tricky to be rich. There was no longer any organised military or civil force to protect them or their possessions, and as they fled, they left behind them some of the finest treasure ever found. Our object belongs to a fabulous collection of gold and silver buried in a field at Hoxne, Suffolk, around 410, and found nearly 1,600 years later ... in 1992.

I'm holding a small statue of the upper half of a Roman matron, wearing very elaborate clothes and long dangly earrings. Her hair is fantastically complicated, it's twisted and plaited in an elaborate "up-do", and she is obviously a seriously 'grande dame' and very, very fashionable. She's about three inches (8 cm) high, so the size of a silver pepper pot - and indeed that is exactly what she is - a silver pepper pot. When I pick it up I can see that on the underside there is a clever mechanism which allows you to determine how much pepper will come out. You turn the handle and you can either close it completely, have it fully open, or in a kind of sprinkling mode.

This pepper pot would clearly have been owned by very wealthy people and it's obviously designed to amuse. Although the face is of silver, the eyes and the lips are picked out in gold, so that as the candles flickered the eyes and the lips would have appeared to move. She would have been quite a talking point at Suffolk banquets - on a table laden with nosh for the posh she is, without question, a bit of kitsch for the rich.

Britain had become part of the Roman Empire in the year 43, so by the time of our pepper pot it had been a Roman province for over three hundred years. Native Britons and Romans had intermingled and inter-married and in England everyone did as the Romans did. Here's Roman trade expert, Roberta Tomber:

"When the Romans came to Britain they brought a lot of material culture, and a lot of habits, with them that made the people of Britain feel Roman, that they identified with the Roman culture. Wine was one of these, olive oil was another, and pepper would have been a more valuable one in this same sort of 'set' of Romanitas."

The Romans were seriously interested in food and slave chefs would man the kitchens to create great delicacies. A high-end Roman menu could include dormice sprinkled with honey and poppy seeds, followed by a whole wild boar being suckled by piglets made of cake, inside which were placed live thrushes. To finish, quince apples and pork, disguised as fowls and fish. None of these opulent culinary inventions could have been created without ample seasoning � and the primary spice would have been pepper. Why has this particular spice remained so constantly attractive? We asked the author and academic Christine McFadden about the importance of adding a bit of pepper to your recipe:

"As an early twentieth-century French chef said - no other spice can do so much for so many different types of food, both sweet and savoury. It contains an alkaloid called piperine, which is responsible for the pungency, and what it does to the body is ... it promotes sweating, which cools the body, which is essential for comfort in hot climates. It also aids digestion, it titivates the taste buds and makes the mouth water. And the other thing - there is research which suggests that it might be a factor in transforming the chemical energy we get from food into what is called heating energy, so in other words, it keeps us warm."

The closest place to Rome where pepper actually grew was India, and so the Romans had to find a way of sending ships to and fro across the Indian Ocean and then carrying their cargo overland to the Mediterranean. Whole fleets and caravans laden with pepper would travel from India to the Red Sea, then across the desert to the Nile. It was then traded around the Roman Empire by river, sea and road. This was an immense network of trade; complicated and dangerous, but highly profitable. Here's Roberta Tomber again:

"We have Strabo in the first century AD saying that 120 boats left every year from Myos Hormos - that's a port on the Red Sea - to India. Of course there were other ports on the Red Sea and other countries sending ships to India. The actual value of the trade was enormous - one hint we have of this is from a second-century papyrus known as the Muziris papyrus. And in that they discuss the cost of a shipload - and it is estimated today at seven million sestertia. Just to put that in context, at that same time a soldier in the Roman army would have earned about 800 sestertia a year."

So regularly filling a large silver pepper pot like ours would have taken its toll on the grocery bills. And the household that owned our pepper pot had another three silver pots, for pepper or other spice - one shaped as Hercules in action, and two in the shape of animals. This is dizzying extravagance, the stuff of bankers' bonuses. But the pepper pots are just a tiny part of the great hoard of buried treasure - they were found in a chest containing 78 spoons, 20 ladles, 29 pieces of spectacular gold jewellery - and over 15,000 gold and silver coins. Fifteen different emperors are represented on the coins - the latest is Constantine III, who came to power in 407, and it is this that helps us to date the hoard. It must have been buried for safekeeping sometime after that year - a time when Roman authority in Britain was rapidly breaking down.

Which brings us back to our pepper pot which, you will remember, is in the shape of a high-born Roman matron. With her right forefinger she points to a scroll, and she holds this very proudly, rather like a graduate showing off a degree scroll in a graduation photograph. And it's this that tells us that this woman is not only from a wealthy family, but that she is also highly educated. There's no doubt that this lady's lunches would have had a very literary flavour. Although Roman women were not allowed to practice professions such as the law or politics, they were taught to be accomplished in the arts. And so singing, playing musical instruments, reading, writing and drawing were all accomplishments expected of a well-bred lady. And while a woman like this could not have held public office, she would certainly have been in a position to exercise real power.

We don't know who the woman on the pepper pot was, but there are clues to be found on other objects from the Hoxne hoard - a gold bracelet is inscribed 'UTERE FELIX DOMINA IULIANE', meaning 'Use this happily Lady Juliane'. We will never know if the Lady Juliane is the lady on our pepper pot, but she may well have been its owner. Another name, 'Aurelius Ursicinus', is found on several of the other objects - could this perhaps have been Juliane's husband? All the objects are small but extremely precious. This was the mobile wealth of a rich Roman family - and it's precisely this type of person who is in danger when a state fails. There were no Swiss bank accounts in the ancient world - the only thing to do with your wealth in time of danger was to bury it, and hope that you lived to come back and find it. But Juliane and Aurelius never did come back, and the buried treasure remained in the ground until 1,600 years later a farmer, Eric Lawes, went to look for a missing hammer. What he found, with the help of his metal detector, was this spectacular hoard. And he did find the hammer - which is now also part of the British Museum's collection.

It's perhaps worth noting that many of the objects in this series we wouldn't know much about, were it not for the work of thousands of people - archaeologists, anthropologists, historians, and many others. And we wouldn't even have found many of these objects without metal detectorists like Eric Lawes, who in recent years have been re-writing the history of Britain. When he found the first few objects, he alerted local archaeologists, so that they could record the detail of the site and lift the whole hoard out in blocks of earth.

Weeks of careful micro-excavation in the laboratories of the British Museum revealed not only the objects, but the way in which they had been packed. Although their original container, a wooden chest about two feet (60 cm) wide, had largely perished, its contents remained in their original positions. Our pepper pot was buried alongside a stack of ladles, some small silver jugs and a beautiful silver handle in the shape of a prancing tigress. Right at the top, lovingly wrapped in cloth, were necklaces, rings and gold chains, placed there by people uncertain of when or whether they would ever wear them again. These are objects that bring us very close to the terrifying events that must have been overwhelming these peoples' lives.

Written on one of the spoons in the hoard are the words 'VIVAS IN DEO' - 'May you live in God' - a common Christian prayer. And it is likely that our fleeing family was Christian. By this date Christianity had been the official religion of the Empire for nearly a hundred years and, like pepper, it had come to Britain via Rome. Faith and trade often travel together, and both the peppercorn and the cross had a reach far wider than the Roman Empire itself.

Next week I shall be moving away from earthly pleasures to examine some of the new spiritual structures that humanity was creating around the world about two thousand years ago. We will be starting in India - with an image that sits most happily in our contemporary Western imagination ... a seated Buddha.

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