The Galloway Hoard is the richest collection of rare and unique Viking Age objects ever found in Britain or Ireland. Buried around AD 900, the hoard brings together a stunning variety of materials and treasures from Ireland, the Anglo-Saxon kingdoms, and as far away as Asia. This was a time when, following Alfred the Great’s victories over the Danes, the Anglo-Saxon king’s successors were laying the foundations of medieval England, and when, further north, the Kingdom of Alba was emerging. Galloway, where the hoard was found, was once part of the Anglo-Saxon Kingdom of Northumbria. On the western coast of southern Scotland, it has easy connections across the Irish Sea. But as the Galloway Hoard’s remarkable contents show, those links stretched much further than Ireland.
Discovered by a metal-detectorist in 2014 on what is now Church of Scotland land, the hoard was saved for the nation by National Museums Scotland in 2017 after a major fundraising campaign. Since then, curators and conservators have been working to clean, preserve, and understand the Hoard. The results to date are shown in a new exhibition, Galloway Hoard: Viking-age Treasure, currently on display at the National Museum of Scotland in Edinburgh, and touring to Kirkcudbright Galleries and Aberdeen Art Gallery thereafter.
Uncovering the hoard’s secrets has been, and still is, a multi-layered process, and the exhibition offers the first chance to see newly revealed details that have been hidden for a millennium.
The Galloway Hoard was buried in layers and separate parcels, which give a rare insight into how the collection was brought together. Silver bullion made up of arm-rings and ingots formed the upper layer of the hoard, separated from the lower layer that lay hidden beneath, disguised by what looked like a natural gravel.
The most common objects in the hoard, making up this silver bullion, are Hiberno-Scandinavian broad-band arm-rings. Although the arm-rings cannot be dated directly, other hoards containing similar arm-rings also contain coins dating to AD 880-930. This suggests that the Galloway Hoard is Scotland’s earliest Viking Age hoard.
These silver bands were made by hammering out carefully measured portions of ingots. Many of the arm-rings in the hoard have never been shaped to be worn, even though they were decorated. Most are flattened and folded, intended as bullion and valued for their weight, like the ingots they were found with. Some have been hacked into portions, already used as bullion and ready to be recycled again.
Some of the pieces of bullion are of standardised weights, multiples of a 26.6g unit, corresponding to an ounce of silver in the standardised system. The best evidence for this weight system comes from the Viking Age settlement of Dublin, where many lead weights of this unit have been found. The Galloway Hoard bullion is therefore part of a common silver economy around the Irish Sea.
More silver was recovered from the plough-soil surrounding the hoard. Some pieces may have been displaced from the bullion, but others are from activity on the site. There is some evidence for buildings around the hoard site, which is now legally protected. Further investigation will yield vital information for understanding the context of the hoard.
Unusually, there was a silver pectoral cross in the top layer of objects; Christian objects are rare in Viking Age hoards. Was the cross also bullion, destined to be melted down into the types of ingots with which it was found? Patient and painstaking cleaning of this cross has revealed its decoration for the first time in a thousand years. Gold picks out important features and niello (a black silver-sulphide paste) is inlaid into carved designs for contrast against the bright silver. The four gospel writers are symbolically represented in the four arms of the cross – St Mark by a lion, St Matthew a man, St Luke an ox, and St John an eagle. These materials and the distinctive figurative and naturalistic art identify the cross as Late Anglo-Saxon (Trewhiddle) style.
A central circular feature, perhaps a raised boss or gemstone and likely to be symbolic of Christ, has been removed. Why? Had the cross been desecrated? Or was the central feature carefully removed as a token of the whole, taken and preserved outside the hoard? This one object poses many questions, but these can only be answered once every object in the hoard is analysed and understood, along with investigation of the wider context.
A fine spiral chain wrapped around the cross suggests that it had been recently worn, suspended from the neck. It is rare to find a chain still connected to a pendant cross. We can easily imagine this cross being robbed from a Christian cleric during a raid on a church – a classic stereotype of the Viking Age. Yet this hoard was buried on what is now church land, near what may have been an early medieval church – as were many hoards in Ireland. These were places where sanctuary could be claimed for possessions and people alike. The more we begin to understand the Galloway Hoard, the less that general stereotypes seem relevant.
The Galloway Hoard was much bigger and more complex than the initial discovery indicated. We might think of the top layer as a decoy, because hidden under the layer of clean, natural-looking gravel was a much richer deposit. It contained more than double the amount of silver bullion bound together with leather, an unusual cluster of arm-rings with a wooden box nestled inside, and a lidded vessel wrapped in textiles.
Within the lower deposit of silver bullion, there are clues pointing to four different owners. There are four intriguing arm-rings inscribed with Anglo-Saxon runes. Some are Old English words that were frequently used as name-elements. A complete Old English name, Egbert, was carved on a hacked arm-ring recovered from the surrounding site. These silver arm-rings are often labelled as ‘Viking’ artefacts, so it is quite unexpected for these runic inscriptions to use Anglo-Saxon rather than Scandinavian runes. By the time these arm-rings were inscribed, in the late 9th or early 10th century AD, Anglo-Saxon runes had been used in Britain for more than 400 years and had developed different letter forms from Scandinavian runes. The use of these runes in the Galloway Hoard, and the Old English names they represent, hints at more complex identities for the owners and users of this bullion than the simple stereotype of Viking raiders.
Each of the four runic-inscribed arm-rings are folded and flattened in a distinctive way. In the lower bullion deposit, there are groups of arm-rings that match each of these four folding patterns. These identifying features suggest that each group of arm-rings belonged to a different person who was named with runes on one example. But these groups are uneven in weight and number. The owners were unlikely to have been equals, because the share of bullion was not an even split. The largest runic arm-ring is more than twice as heavy as the other inscribed examples and it features the longest (currently undeciphered) inscription. The lower parcel of bullion weighs 2,713.6g, which is within half a gram of 8½ pounds of silver (2,713.2g) using the Dublin standard weight measure. This again suggests some order and method to this deposit.
The arm-rings from the second group in the lower layer are different from the rest of the bullion. They are a much more elaborately decorated type called a ribbon arm-ring, and this group of four were complete, unhacked, and shaped as they would have been worn. The four arm-rings look similar, but each has had a different life. One is very well-worn; another appears to have been worn little, but is warped. The third is also barely worn: it is pristine, with fine detail in the punched decoration. The fourth is the largest by a comfortable margin: it is a double arm-ring, twice the size of the others, with pointed-eared beasts facing each other, their tongues becoming the knot that binds the two bands together. Again, these four ribbon arm-rings suggest four owners, unequal in status. Fascinatingly, they are all bound together tightly by a smaller band arm-ring, perhaps an unusual act of joining together in contract. This remarkable cluster of arm-rings surrounded a small wooden box containing three objects in gold – a material much rarer than silver in Viking Age hoards. A ring, an ingot, and a beautiful pin in the shape of a bird make up this golden trio.
A different container in the lower layer – the lidded vessel – is only the third silver-gilt and decorated vessel to be found as part of a Viking Age hoard in the UK, but there are some key differences that make the Galloway Hoard vessel stand out. Other vessels contained silver, yet here the silver bullion was buried outside the container, and its contents (which we will explore below) are unlike any other Viking Age hoard. This is also the only vessel used as a treasure container with its surviving lid. The lid sealing the vessel helped to create an environment inside favourable to the preservation of leather and textile, materials that are of huge value to archaeologists because they so rarely survive and they can be dated directly.
The outside of the vessel was also wrapped with textiles, which evidence shows are of three different types. We are recording and preserving these rare survivals for the future, and further investigation will explore how they were made and whether they were coloured or embellished. They could provide important clues about the burial of the hoard. Were they garments – whatever was close at hand, hastily grabbed to stash this precious vessel? Or were they specially made covers for a lidded vessel that was only ever meant to be revealed to particular people at special moments?
Three-dimensional X-ray imaging has allowed us to see beneath the textiles for a privileged glimpse of the decorated surface of the vessel. In the exhibition, a 3D model allows visitors to see the vessel for the first time. This imaging reveals that the vessel is not from the Carolingian (Holy Roman) Empire of continental Europe, as had been expected based on other similar examples. Instead, its decoration, which includes Zoroastrian fire altars, suggests that it is a piece of Central Asian metalwork. Another surprise comes from preliminary radiocarbon dating of wool wrapping the vessel, which dates to AD 680-780. The vessel is from beyond Europe, potentially thousands of miles away, and the wool wrapping it pre-dates the Viking Age, being more than 100 years old (perhaps as many as 200 years) by the time it was buried with silver bullion from the 9th or early 10th century.
Further hints of the value of the vessel and its contents come from within. A collection of beads, curios, and pendants were bundled and strung together at the top, resting as a group on a silver penannular brooch-hoop. Everything at the top of the vessel was wrapped, but the evidence for the wrappings has only partly survived. As metals in the hoard have corroded, the copper leaching out helped create a suitable environment for preserving organic materials. But glass does not corrode in the same way, so the beads have not preserved their textile wrappings. However, where there was contact with metal at the top of the vessel, there are microscopic survivals of the textile wrappings that bundled this group together. The best evidence for wrapping at the top of the vessel survives on an unusual ‘relic’ pendant made from a bead enclosed in silver and capped with a perforated coin. The coin was minted for Coenwulf, the King of Anglo-Saxon Mercia (died AD 821), generations before the hoard was buried. This is another clear clue that this intriguing collection of curios within the vessel were handed down as heirlooms. Old and well-worn, it seems that many of these objects were valued for their age or past ownership.
The contents of the vessel also include the first collection of Late Anglo-Saxon brooches from Scotland. There are seven brooches: one is a singleton and the rest are in three pairs. Among these pairs of brooches, none are exactly the same. One of the brooches is a scale version of the other in its pair. Another pair has a finer example and one with less skilled carving. The third pair contains two unusual cross-shaped, quatrefoil brooches. These are related to the more common disc-brooches in the hoard in how they were made and worn, but this new design is unique to the Galloway Hoard. The iconography depicts two of the five senses – sight and sound. On one, all the emphasis is on the eyes, and on the other it is the ears that are exaggerated as they ring with the sound of the blast horns being blown next to them.
Disc-brooches are not found in Scotland, but are more common in the Anglo-Saxon kingdoms of southern and eastern Britain. Along with these uncommon brooches, there is a pair of multi-hinged straps placed within the vessel. These straps – possibly elaborate dress accessories – are unique for Anglo-Saxon metalwork. First signalled by the cross in the top ‘decoy’ layer, this collection is unparalleled in Scotland and exceptional for a Viking Age hoard. Like the Anglo-Saxon runes on the silver arm-rings, this complicates the stereotype of a ‘Viking’ hoard.
The vessel contained materials not normally considered to be valuable, such as glass or stone, and even two balls of dirt. These might seem mundane at first glance, but they must have been of great significance to their owners. The Vatican collections contain earth relics gathered during the mid 7th-10th centuries from places in the Holy Land relating to the life of Christ. We have found minute traces of gold and bone within the ‘dirt balls’ in the Galloway Hoard, which suggests they may also have been contact relics of earth from holy sites brought back from pilgrimage. Everything within this vessel was valued, for a variety of reasons based on where it came from, how old it was, and who had owned it previously. This uniquely composed collection would have been priceless to the person or people who brought it all together.
Within the hoard is the largest collection of Viking Age gold surviving from Britain and Ireland. All of the gold objects are unusual and distinct from one another, perhaps coming from distant places and different manufacturing traditions. Techniques of decoration will provide clues about how the objects were made and perhaps where they came from, but we will need to look for comparisons far and wide. Lower down within the carefully packed and sealed vessel, conditions for the preservation of textiles were exceptional. Two bundles containing leather, linen, and silk (as both cord and fabric) have been preserved, wrapped around golden jewels that make up an elaborate belt set, and a rock crystal jar. These are possibly Scotland’s oldest surviving examples of silk.
Silk cord attached to one large pendant decorated with gold-filigree shows this was also part of this elaborate belt set. The relatively common, but carefully shaped, quadrangular black stone of schist would not normally be treated like a gemstone, but its significance relates to its function. A pyramidal cap with gold clasps meant the stone could be removed from its setting. Analysis with a Scanning Electron Microscope has recorded streaks of precious metals, especially gold, on the surface of the black stone, characteristics which have allowed us to identify the pendant as a touchstone used by metal-workers or traders for assaying (assessing the quality of) precious metals.
The many organic materials from the Galloway Hoard, including leather, wood, gut, silk, linen, and wool are archaeological treasures in their own right, but they also provide exciting opportunities for multidisciplinary research when studied in combination with the exotic and precious materials they wrap and connect. Precious metals like gold cannot be scientifically dated, but the radiocarbon dating of associated organic materials can tell us more about how this collection came together over time. Dye analysis can bring lost colour back to life, and technological and manufacturing details can provide clues to distant origins.
This exhibition presents a wonderful opportunity to see these objects – now transformed by cleaning and conservation – first hand but, as the range of unanswered questions in this article indicates, there is more work to do. We have been awarded a grant by the Arts and Humanities Research Council to conduct a £1 million, three-year research project into the hoard, entitled ‘Unwrapping the Galloway Hoard’. The project, carried out in partnership with the University of Glasgow, will include 3D digital-modelling and chemical and material analysis, as well as the engagement of three post-doctoral research assistants and research symposia, supporting a range of public work including publications, online resources, a programme for schools, and the exhibition and its tour.
The exhibition is the story so far, but we are already a world away from the typical Viking Age hoard. Our continuing project will enable far more detailed analysis and understanding of this complex hoard, including scientific dating of some materials and, it is hoped, identification of some places of origin.
Further information Galloway Hoard: Viking-age Treasure is at the National Museum of Scotland until 12 September 2021. Admission is free but advance booking is required to visit the Museum. It will tour thereafter, thanks to support from the Scottish Government, to Kirkcudbright Galleries (9 October 2021-10 July 2022) and Aberdeen Art Gallery and Museum (30 July-23 October 2022). For more details and booking information, visit www.nms.ac.uk/gallowayhoard. The exhibition is sponsored by Baillie Gifford Investment Managers. The Galloway Hoard was saved for the nation through a fundraising campaign supported by the National Heritage Memorial Fund, Art Fund, and many individual donors.
All images: National Museums Scotland, unless otherwise stated.