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New light cast on Norfolk-named Roman jewellery linked to The Lord of the Rings

PUBLISHED: 07:00 21 February 2018 | UPDATED: 08:40 21 February 2018

The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring (2001). Photo: Outnow.ch/New Line Cinema

The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring (2001). Photo: Outnow.ch/New Line Cinema

Outnow.ch/New Line Cinema

One ring to rule them all – and one Norfolk ring to inspire it.

This Roman gold betrothal ring, from 4th or 5th century AD, was found at Brancaster in 1829. It is now on display in the Boudicca Gallery at Norwich Castle. 
Photo: supplied by Norfolk Museums Service This Roman gold betrothal ring, from 4th or 5th century AD, was found at Brancaster in 1829. It is now on display in the Boudicca Gallery at Norwich Castle. Photo: supplied by Norfolk Museums Service

A style of Roman ring first discovered at Brancaster is said to have inspired JRR Tolkien to write The Lord of the Rings.

And now researchers are able to reveal more about the historical story of the so-called Brancaster rings.

The 54 artefacts - all a type of signet ring with an inscribed square or rectangular bezel - were given their collective Norfolk name because the first example was discovered in 1829 in the village which was once the site of the Roman fort Branodunum. Engraved with two heads and the words Vivas In Deo, the gold ring was the first of six uncovered in Norfolk, with others found in Caistor St Edmund, the King’s Lynn area and Deopham.

Many more have been found in other parts of the south and east of the country.

A Roman silver Brancaster-type ring found in south Norfolk.
Photo: Portable Antiquities Scheme/www.finds.org.uk A Roman silver Brancaster-type ring found in south Norfolk. Photo: Portable Antiquities Scheme/www.finds.org.uk

One, found in Hampshire, was famously credited with giving JRR Tolkien the idea for The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings trilogy because it was thought to be linked to a Roman curse tablet.

The collection has now been cast into the spotlight because work by researchers from Newcastle and Oxford Universities has shown the rings were unique to the late fourth and fifth centuries when Britain was slipping from the Roman Empire’s grasp. The researchers, who have catalogued each ring in detail, say they can be dated with confidence because of their design and material.

Most are made from silver, and some from gold, contrasting with the early Roman period when most rings were bronze. They feature engravings of everything from the emperor to sea creatures to references to Christianity which had started to spread across the Roman Empire in the fourth century, and they are very different to early Anglo Saxon rings, which were much plainer and rarer.

As well as being worn as jewellery, the rings were used with wax to seal letters and important documents.

The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King (2003). Photo: Outnow.ch/New Line Cinema The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King (2003). Photo: Outnow.ch/New Line Cinema

“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,” said Dr James Gerrard, senior lecturer in Roman archaeology at Newcastle University.

“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.”

Ring was thought to have inspired JRR Tolkien

A Roman gold Brancaster-type ring found in Lincolnshire.
Photo: Portable Antiquities Scheme/www.finds.org.uk A Roman gold Brancaster-type ring found in Lincolnshire. Photo: Portable Antiquities Scheme/www.finds.org.uk

One famous Brancaster ring, known as the Senicianus ring, is thought to have inspired JRR Tolkien to write fantasy classics The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings trilogy.

The gold ring, discovered in Silchester in Hampshire, has been linked to a Roman curse tablet, found at the site of a Roman temple in 1785, which said: “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.”

Nearly 150 years later, archaeologist Sir Mortimer Wheeler is believed to have discussed the ring with Tolkien - a Professor of Anglo-Saxon at Oxford University at the time - after realising the ring could be the one referred to by the curse. Tolkien later published The Hobbit in 1937 and the first of The Lord of the Rings trilogy in 1954. The much-loved books have also been turned into hit films directed by Peter Jackson.

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