Cursed Roman ring may have inspired Tolkien's tales of Middle-earth
Author knew about the golden band, its origins and curse on the person who stole it
In what was once the housekeeper's office of a Tudor mansion in Hampshire, southern England, a very odd golden ring glitters on a revolving stand in a tall perspex column.
In chapter five of The Hobbit, Bilbo Baggins finds a ring in the gloom of Gollum's cave. Not just any ring. "One very beautiful thing, very beautiful, very wonderful. He had a ring, a golden ring, a precious ring".
A new exhibition opening yesterday at The Vyne mansion, now owned by the National Trust, raises the intriguing possibility that the Roman ring in the case, and the ring of power in JRR Tolkien's book The Hobbit, and in his Lord of the Rings trilogy, are one and the same.
As Dave Green, the property manager, explains, there's more to the story than the ring - an iron-age site with ancient mine workings known as "the Dwarf's Hill", a curse on the thief who stole the ring, and a strong link to Tolkien himself.
Tolkien was a professor of Anglo-Saxon at Oxford before he found fame as an author, with the publication of The Hobbit in 1937, and the first of the Rings trilogy in 1954. He certainly knew the story of the curse and the ring, and was researching the subject two years before he began work on The Hobbit.
The ring was in the collection of the Chute family - which for generations was interested in politics, collecting, and antiquarian research - for centuries before the house came to the National Trust in the 1930s.
"I was looking for the ring to show a visitor, and I walked right past the case with it - that's when I decided we really had to make more of this amazing thing," Green said. As well as the exhibition room, created with the help of the Tolkien Trust, the house now has a dwarf trail for children and a new playground with circular tunnels and green hillocks recalling Bilbo's home, Bag End.
The ring was probably found in 1785 by a farmer ploughing a few kilometres away within the walls of Silchester, a town which flourished before the Roman invasion but was later abandoned.
Historians assume the farmer sold it to the family at The Vyne. It was a strikingly odd object, 12g of gold ornamented with a spiky head wearing a diadem, and a Latin inscription reading: "Senicianus live well in God".
A few decades later and 160 kilometres away, more of the story turned up: at Lydney in Gloucestershire, southwest England, a Roman site known locally as the Dwarf's Hill, a tablet with an inscribed curse was found. A Roman called Silvianus informs the god Nodens that his ring has been stolen. He knows the villain responsible, and he wants the god to sort them out: "Among those who bear the name of Senicianus to none grant health until he bring back the ring to the temple of Nodens".
Lydney was re-excavated by the maverick archaeologist Mortimer Wheeler, who called in Tolkien in 1929 to advise on the odd name of the god - and also spotted the connection between the name on the curse and the Chute family's peculiar ring.
Dr Lynn Forest-Hill of the Tolkien Trust said Tolkien's source was usually assumed to be literary sources, including the Nibelung legends. "It is, then, particularly fascinating to see the physical evidence of the Vyne ring, with its links to Tolkien through the inscription associating it with a curse," she said.
The ring is now on display with a first edition of The Hobbit and a copy of the curse.