Ancient Roman Silver Unearthed by 19th-Century French Farmer on View at MFAH

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We've all seen treasure hunters on the beach, concentrating their attentions downward as they slowly sweep their metal detectors back and forth in hopes of finding a lost watch, a few coins or a diamond ring.

For Prosper Taurin, a 19th-century farmer plowing a newly acquired field in Normandy, France, this dream became a reality. Only instead of using a newfangled gadget, the farmer hit pay dirt by striking an ancient Roman tile with his plowshare.

Behind the tile was a buried cist containing more than 50 pounds of silver objects. He had unwittingly discovered the best surviving examples of Roman silver in the world, buried almost two thousand years ago in a forgotten vault. The sanctuary was in a remote location and most likely was visited once or twice a year. Many of the found objects were dedicated to Mercury – the god of travelers, protector of commerce, trade and flocks – by farmers, freed slaves and Roman, Latin and Greek locals.

In 1830 it wasn't uncommon to melt silver for reuse, so Taurin crudely used his hoe to unearth the 93 objects (bowls, cups, jugs and a pair of statuettes). He scratched a few pieces, broke others, and went to market with his bundle of loot to see what it would fetch. The treasure was soon acquired by the royal collections of the Cabinet des Médailles of the Bibliothèque nationale de France.

Now known as the trésor de Berthouville, the rescued objects have recently been conserved by the J. Paul Getty Museum, and are on view in the touring exhibit, "Ancient Luxury and the Roman Silver Treasure from Berthouville," at the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston. A four-minute video detailing ancient silversmithing techniques accompanies the exhibit.

Most fascinating about the silver objects, which range from plain to ornate with gold embellishments, are the stories they tell. The vessels served as luxury tableware and offered hours of conversation as diners discussed the mythology and stories found in high literature: the deaths of Hector and Achilles, Odysseus, Homer's Iliad, Pegasus, Poseidon and Bacchus's love-hate relationship with wine.

The "Roman Silver" exhibit is paired with "Ancient Luxury" objects on loan from the royal collections of the Cabinet des Médailles, which is undergoing renovation. The Houston stop is the last opportunity to view the precious gemstones, glass, jewelry and other luxury items before they are returned to France next year.

These were the objects most valued by the Roman empire as it amassed great wealth and fed its appetite for bling, later finding their way into the collections of the kings of France and other collectors. There's a 22-pound presentation platter acquired by Louis XIV upon which two coats of arms were once incised, only to be excised after the French Revolution. There are gold ingots and coins, an ornate leonine table leg, cameos made of banded sardonyx (one was once owned by Sir Peter Paul Rubens), perfume bottles and a micromosaic segment from Hadrian's Villa at Tivoli.

This is the first time the objects have been presented in their entirety outside of Paris, and Houston is the last stop on the four-venue United States tour.

"Ancient Luxury and the Roman Silver Treasure from Berthouville" continues through February 5 at the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, 1001 Bissonnet, open 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Tuesdays and Wednesdays, 10 a.m. to 9 p.m. Thursdays, 10 a.m. to 7 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays, 12:15 to 7 p.m. Sundays, 713-639-7300, mfah.org. Free to $15.

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