by Lynn Forest-Hill and Mark Horton, BBC History Today, London, 1/3/15.
Did the story of a stolen Roman ring provide the basis for one of the 20th century’s most popular works of fiction? Mark Horton and Lynn Forest-Hill tell the story of the archaeological dig which fuelled the fantasies of J.R.R. Tolkien.
Fit for a Lord: the gold ring now at The VyneSometime in the late fourth century a Roman by the name of Silvianus visited the Celtic temple dedicated to a healing god, Nodens, located on a hill above the River Severn at Lydney in Gloucestershire. During his visit (and possibly while Silvianus was bathing in the temple’s elaborate baths), his gold ring was stolen. We know this because two lead curses were excavated in the ruins of the temple in the early 19th century. According to these curses Silvianus believed that the thief was called Senicianus and he offered half the value of the ring to Nodens, who was asked in return to withdraw good health from the culprit.
The lead curses and numerous other artefacts found over the years at the temple languished in a private museum on the estate until 1928, when the young but ambitious archaeologists Mortimer Wheeler and his wife Tessa were invited by the owner, Lord Bledisloe, to clarify the history of the site. Over two summers the Wheelers worked at Lydney and asked various experts to assist in the research. Two of these were fellows of the same Oxford college, Pembroke: R.G. Collingwood, the archaeologist and philosopher, who worked on the epigraphy; and J.R.R. Tolkien, the professor of Anglo-Saxon and Celtic literature, who sought to explain the identity of the deities, including Nodens, which he equated with the Celtic god Nuadha.
So much is well known. But these years were also significant because 1928-29 was the period during which The Hobbit was taking its final shape. How much was Tolkien influenced in writing his fantasy by his exposure to the archaeological excavations, to the Wheelers and to Collingwood? Was it Collingwood who introduced Tolkien to the Lydney project and the story of the stolen ring?