During the final days of Roman control over Britain, a select and aristocratic group of individuals showed their superiority by wearing an item known as a Brancaster ring, and 54 of these have now been thoroughly catalogued by a team of scholars from Oxford and Newcastle, including the famous ring that is believed to have inspired JRR Tolkien’s writings in The Hobbit and Lord of the Rings.
The Brancaster rings were given their title after the first of these rings was discovered around the middle half of the 19th century in Norfolk, and this particular type of ring can be identified by its rectangular or square shape which holds secret writings upon it. As Heritage Daily report, the vast majority of these rings have been fashioned out of silver, although there are a few that were constructed out of gold.
These were quite different from the more traditional bronze rings that were prevalent during the early Roman occupation and were also in marked contrast to Anglo Saxon rings which, in comparison, were decidedly plain.
Another thing that set the Brancaster ring apart from normal rings is that they were worn not only for decorative purposes, but also used as seals for letters and what would have been extremely crucial documents at the time.
— Archaeology at NCL (@ArchaeologyNCL) February 21, 2018
Senior Lecturer Dr James Gerrard explained that the lucky few who would have possessed one of these Roman Brancaster rings would have been living a very elite lifestyle at the time, especially during the fifth century which marked a time of vast social upheaval and change.
“These were ostentatious rings and would have been a very visible sign of the wearer’s status and their confidence in expressing themselves as a Roman citizen. The fifth century was a period of major upheaval and marked the start of the transition from Roman Empire to Anglo Saxon Britain. These rings and their inscriptions provide a glimpse of what Britain was like during these years and give an insight into the dress, beliefs, ideologies and education level of the elite at the time.”
Out of the 54 Brancaster rings discovered, it was the Senicianus ring which is believed to have been the influence for JRR Tolkien’s writings in The Hobbit and Lord of the Rings. This is because when Tolkien was a professor at Oxford, Sir Mortimer Wheeler is alleged to have had many deep conversations with the writer about the curse which has been identified with it.
The relationship between this ring and a curse stems from an ancient Roman tablet that was filled with curses and was found in 1785. Addressed to the Celtic deity who was known as Nodens, the owner of the ring can be read giving an impassioned plea, imploring Nodens to give him back the ring that was stolen by a brute called Senecianus.
“To the god Nodens: Silvianus has lost his ring and promises half its value to Nodens. Among those named Senecianus, let none enjoy health until he brings it back to the temple of Nodens.”
— Roman Society (@TheRomanSoc) February 24, 2018
Out of the Brancaster rings that have been recovered, most were found towards the east and south areas of the UK. While some were discovered inside villas, quite a few were also located with other buried goods like coins. Besides the writings etched on them, many of the rings also contain images such as lovers, soldiers, sea griffins and dolphins.
More information on the 5th century Roman Brancaster rings found in the UK can be read in the journal Bonner Jahrbucher.