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Unearthing the secrets of Lunnern's treasure

The Lunnern gold treasure, from the third century AD, one of the most spectacular finds of the period

More than 1,700 years ago a wealthy family from Lunnern, in what is now Switzerland, hid their gold jewellery to protect it from raiders threatening the Roman Empire.

The stunning items, which were not found again until 1741, are currently on display at the Swiss National Museum in Zurich. They reveal much about life during the Roman times, including a very modern penchant for fashion.

By the third century AD the Roman Empire, which stretched from Britain to North Africa, was in crisis.

The once-mighty power was under attack at its borders. Along the Rhine, the Germanic tribes carried out frequent raids, plundering towns and villages. Anxious and frightened, people stashed their valuables before fleeing.

"They were frequently hidden within houses, or in holy spots so that you would find it again," said Anita Brumann Cullen, an assistant on the "Roman Treasures – buried and rediscovered" exhibition, which is running at the national museum until March next year.

"But those times being insecure, most of these treasures weren't recovered and people weren't able to come back, which is why you can still find them," she told swissinfo.

This is what happened to the household from Lunnern, in the Reuss Valley near Zurich. Their stash of gold jewellery and silver coins was not discovered again until 1741.

Sensational find

Prompted by the find of a Roman bottle, local amateur archaeologists – the science was then still in its fledgling years – carried out excavations, uncovering a Roman temple, bathhouse and cemetery. This told them that Lunnern had been a small Roman settlement, or vicus.

Further digs revealed the most precious find of all: 17 items of gold jewellery hidden in a wall recess in one of the houses. This caused a sensation.

The silver coins have since been lost, but the family's jewels, which have been dated to around 260AD, take pride of place in the museum's display.

They include chains with elaborately worked clasps, as well as pendants and earrings. Particularly stunning are several gold discs, made from hundreds of small pieces of gold and painstakingly put together by master craftsmen.

It is the first time that these finds, as well as other spectacular hoards, found locally and in France, Italy and Germany, have been shown together in Switzerland.

Three generations of fashion

Archaeologists now know that the Lunnern jewellery belonged to three generations of women with different tastes.

It seems that people in Roman times were just as fashion conscious are they are now, says Brumann Cullen.

"You have jewellery belonging to a girl which was worn throughout the Roman Empire and was the latest fashion. You see these types of necklaces in other hoards." she said.

"There are necklaces with fascinating clasps which were at the height of fashion for the Gallo-Romanic times, so the woman who was wearing it was very fashion conscious and proud to show it off," she added.

"And you have ornamental discs and snake bracelets, which were starting to go out of fashion, so they were probably worn by an older lady, as a sign of status or being married."

Roman bling

A comparison between the Lunnern gold and the treasure from other countries reveals much about regional preferences during Roman times.

Jewellery coming from around what is now Switzerland and southern Germany tended to favour local designs and silver. This makes the Lunnern find especially exceptional.

But items coming from Italy were predominately gold and more chunky, reflecting – a perhaps still present – more showy taste. French items were more filigree.

These differences were not just related to status, says Brumann Cullen. They were also a way of showing pride in your heritage.

The Lunnern jewellery itself is of the highest quality, with some pieces made of almost pure gold. And, presented on their own in the centre of a darkened room, the items certainly still make an impact.

"We actually get a lot of questions about whether they are the real pieces that were found because they look so shiny and new, which is due to the fact that they are made out of gold," explained Brumann Cullen.

"Gold is less prone to corrosion, and although the jewellery was found almost 270 years ago, you could wear it today and everyone would comment on your great jewellery."

swissinfo, Isobel Leybold-Johnson in Zurich

In brief

"Roman Treasures – buried and rediscovered" runs at the Swiss National Museum in Zurich until March 22, 2009.

On show are gold and silver jewellery, coins, silver and bronze tableware, as well as objects made of bronze and iron. Coins, which have Roman date stamps, allow the hoards to be dated.

Apart from the Lunnern jewellery, visitors can also see Zurich painter Johann Balthasar Bullinger's 18th century picture of the original dig site as well as parts of an excavation report, of a detail unique at the time.

Other Swiss finds come from Kottwil and Rickenbach (central Switzerland), Winterthur (near Zurich) and Bex (French-speaking part).

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Roman Switzerland

Switzerland during the third century AD did not exist as such, but was part of different provinces of Rome, which changed over the years.

There were three urban city centres: Augst (August Raurica), near Basel, as well as Avenches (Aventicum) and Nyon (Noviodunum or Noiodunum), both now in the French-speaking part of the country.

There were also lots of little settlements, many of which had everything needed for a comfortable Roman lifestyle. They were also the centrepoint (vicus) for the farmsteads in the surrounding areas. Lunnern was a vicus.

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