Around AD 900, a stunning array of objects from Ireland, the Anglo-Saxon kingdoms, and as far away as Asia was buried in south-west Scotland. There it would remain undisturbed for over 1,100 years, until its contents were discovered by a metal-detectorist in 2014 (see CA 297). Today, this assemblage is known as the Galloway Hoard, and it remains the richest collection of rare and unique Viking Age objects ever found in Britain or Ireland. It was saved for the nation by National Museums Scotland in 2017, following a major fundraising campaign supported by the National Heritage Memorial Fund, Art Fund, and many individual donors. Since then, curators and conservators have been working to clean, preserve, and understand the hoard’s eclectic contents, with illuminating results. The ongoing process of discovery is presented in a new exhibition, Galloway Hoard: Viking-age Treasure, currently running at the National Museum of Scotland in Edinburgh (see ‘Further information’ box on p.27), sponsored by Baillie Gifford. It will then tour to Kirkcudbright Galleries and Aberdeen Art Gallery thanks to support from the Scottish Government. The exhibition offers the first opportunity to see ornate details that have been hidden for more than a millennium, using a variety of modern tools and techniques. As well as adding to our understanding of the period in which they were made, the exhibition explains the process behind the ongoing conservation and research programme. So, what has our work revealed so far?
A decoy deposit?
The Galloway Hoard was not a single deposit: it had been buried in different layers comprising four separate parcels. Unpicking these has given us a rare insight into how the collection was originally brought together. Intriguingly, the uppermost layer could be interpreted as a sacrificial decoy to fool thieves, because a much richer deposit was hidden just 10cm below, under a layer of clean natural-looking gravel.
This top layer contained silver bullion, mainly Hiberno-Scandinavian broad-band arm-rings, as well as ingots and hacksilver. Such arm-rings are mostly found in Ireland, but are also known from bullion hoards in North Wales and northern England. The silver bands were made by hammering out carefully measured portions of ingots. While many in the Galloway Hoard are intricately decorated, though, they were never shaped to be worn. Instead, most are flat and folded, suggesting that they had been treated as bullion and valued for their weight like ingots.
Many of the arm-rings and ingots were made to standardised weights: multiples of a 26.6g unit which represented an ounce of silver in the Viking Age marketplace of Dublin. The Galloway Hoard bullion represents a common silver economy based on this unit which operated around the Irish Sea, where a fresh influx of silver is one of the best archaeological indicators of the Scandinavian connections that heralded warfare, trade, and settlement in early medieval Britain and Ireland. Silver was also recovered from the plough-soil surrounding the find-spot of the hoard, and while some of this could have been displaced from the treasure, other pieces, such as hacked ingots and silver droplets, seem to relate to different activities, and perhaps to the buildings whose traces were also excavated around the hoard site – further investigation is needed to understand their relationship to the buried cache.
The arm-rings provide useful clues to when the hoard was buried: other hoards containing similar ornaments, such as the Cuerdale Hoard in Lancashire, have been found with coins that help to establish a date-range of AD 880-930. This would make the Galloway Hoard Scotland’s earliest-known Viking Age hoard. We are partnering with the University of Oxford Silver and the Earliest Viking Age project to use isotopic and trace element analysis to explore the origin of the silver in an international context.
A more unusual object within the top layer was a silver pectoral cross. Christian objects like this are not common in Viking Age hoards. Was the cross also intended as bullion, destined to be melted down into ingots? The cross was certainly a visually striking object: patient and painstaking cleaning has now revealed its intricate ornament, with symbols on its arms representing each of the authors of the four Gospels. Important features were picked out in gold, while niello (a black silver-sulphide paste) had been inlaid into the carved designs for contrast against the bright silver. These materials and the distinctive art style identify the cross as late Anglo-Saxon (Trewhiddle style). In the centre, an empty socket had once secured a now-lost central circular feature, perhaps a raised boss or gemstone that probably represented Christ. This had been removed by the time of burial. Why? Had the cross been desecrated? Or was the central feature carefully removed as a token of the whole, taken and preserved outside of the hoard?
Another noteworthy element to the cross is the fine spiral chain that passes through a suspension loop and was carefully wrapped around the object before burial. The chain is formed from sub-millimetre silver wire wound around animal gut. It is rare to find a chain still connected to a pendant cross of this period, and it suggests that the cross had been worn shortly before it was added to the hoard. We can easily imagine it being torn from the neck of a Christian cleric during a raid – a classic stereotype of the Viking Age. Yet the objects had been buried close to what was probably an early church site, 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.
Rings and runes
The Galloway Hoard was much bigger and more complex than the initial discovery indicated, with a further three parcels hidden beneath the gravel that separated them from the upper ‘decoy’ layer. This lower deposit contained more than twice the amount of silver bullion (2,713.6g – within half a gram of 8½lbs of silver on the Dublin standard), an unusual cluster of arm-rings, more gold than any other Viking hoard in Scotland, and a wrapped and lidded vessel packed to the brim with some remarkable contents.
The silver bullion preserves a wealth of fascinating information including clues to the identity of four former owners through four arm-rings inscribed with runes. These silver arm-rings are often labelled as ‘Viking’ artefacts, so it was quite unexpected to find that these were Anglo-Saxon rather than Scandinavian runes. By the time the arm-rings were marked in this way, Anglo-Saxon runes had been used in Britain for over 400 years and had developed distinctive letter forms from Scandinavian runes. Some of the runes on the arm rings spell Old English words that were frequently used as name-elements (such as til, ‘good’, used in contemporary names like Tilred), while a complete Old English name Egbert, was identified on a hacked arm-ring that was recovered from the surrounding site (CA 357).
There were further clues to come: each of the runic-inscribed arm-rings was flattened and folded in a distinctive way. Intriguingly, most of the other arm-rings from the lower deposit match one of these four folding patterns, suggesting that each group had belonged to one of the named individuals. The share of bullion had not been split evenly, however – the groups differ in weight and number, suggesting that these four people were not equals. The largest runic arm-ring is more than twice as heavy as the other inscribed examples and features the longest (currently undeciphered) inscription.
The second group of arm-rings in the lower layer are markedly different from the rest of the bullion. They are a much more elaborately decorated type called a ribbon arm-ring, and the four from the Galloway Hoard were complete, unhacked, and shaped as they would have been worn. While these rings look similar to each other, though, they have had very different lives. One is very well-worn, while another is warped but with little sign of wear. The third is pristine and barely worn, with fine detail in its punched decoration. The fourth and largest is a double arm-ring, twice the size of the others, with pointed-eared beasts facing each other, their tongues becoming the knot binding the two bands together. Four arm-rings again suggest four owners, unequal in status. Unusually, they are all tightly bound together by one of the smaller arm-rings, as if in a contract. Into this cluster of arm-rings was tucked a small wooden box. It contained three gold objects (a material much rarer than silver in Viking Age hoards): a ring, an ingot, and a beautiful pin in the shape of a bird.
A curious collection
The most remarkable aspect of the Galloway Hoard is the small, decorated, gilt-silver vessel and its contents that had been placed in the lower layer. Two similar vessels are known from other Viking Age hoards in the UK, but some key differences make this example stand out. The other vessels contained silver, but here the silver bullion was buried outside, and instead an intriguing selection of diverse objects had been wrapped and carefully placed inside. This is also the only vessel with a surviving, matching lid – creating sealed conditions suitable for the survival of leather and textiles. These organic materials are of great value because they so rarely survive. The contents of this vessel are what make this quite unlike any other Viking Age hoard.
The vessel had been wrapped in cloth before it was placed in the ground, with evidence for three types of textile identified on its outer surface. Further investigation will explore how these were made, and whether they were coloured or embellished. Three-dimensional X-ray imaging has allowed a privileged glimpse of the decorated surface of the vessel beneath the textile wrapping for the first time. This has revealed that, unlike the other similar vessels, the Galloway Hoard container was not made in the Carolingian Empire of continental Europe. Instead, its decoration suggests its origins lie in Central Asia, including Zoroastrian symbolism such as a fire altar, stylised leopards and tigers, and other iconography common in the Sasanian Empire (centred on modern Iran from the 3rd to the 7th century AD). Another surprise came from radiocarbon dating of the wool wrapping the vessel: this material dates to AD 680-780. So this vessel had been made thousands of miles away from its resting place, while the wool wrapping it pre-dates the burial of the hoard by more than a hundred years.
As for what lay inside, a collection of beads, curios, and pendants lay uppermost, bundled and strung together, resting on a silver penannular brooch-hoop. Everything at the top of the vessel seems to have originally been wrapped, though the evidence for this has only partly survived. As metals in the hoard corroded, the copper leaching out helped to create an environment which preserved organic materials. Glass does not corrode in the same way, and so the beads have not preserved their textile wrappings. However, microscopic traces of the textile wrappings that held this group of objects together survive wherever there was contact with metal at the top of the vessel. The best evidence 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, ruler of Mercia, an Anglo-Saxon kingdom far to the south, who had died in 821, generations before the hoard was buried – another hint that this unusual collection contained several heirlooms. Old and well-worn, many of these objects seem to have been valued for their age or past ownership.
The vessel also held seven late Anglo-Saxon brooches, the first such group known from Scotland. Among the three pairs, none is exactly the same: in one pair, the matching brooches are of different sizes; in another pair, almost identical in size and design, one brooch is a poorer copy of the first. Five are disc-brooches, a type more commonly associated with the Anglo-Saxon kingdoms of southern and eastern England, and a fashion not adopted in Scotland. There is also a pair of unusual cross-shaped, quatrefoil brooches of a design that is unique to the Galloway Hoard. The imagery focuses on two of the five senses: sight and hearing. On one, all the emphasis is on the eyes, while on the other the ears are exaggerated – ringing because blast horns are being blown next to them. A pair of multi-hinged straps placed with the brooches are also unprecedented in Anglo-Saxon metalwork and may be elaborate dress accessories. First signalled by the cross in the top ‘decoy’ layer, this collection of Anglo-Saxon artefacts is unique in Scotland and unusual in any Viking Age hoard. Like the Anglo-Saxon runes on the silver arm-rings, their presence further complicates stereotypical interpretations of a ‘Viking’ hoard.
Yet, among these ornate objects, there were also materials that are not normally considered to be valuable, but which had nonetheless been carefully tucked alongside the other more conventional ‘treasures’. Chief among these were two balls of dirt, deliberately formed by careful rolling. These may seem mundane at first glance, but they must have been of great significance to their owners. Medieval records describe relics of earth being brought back from pilgrimage, and similar material in the Vatican collections comes from the Holy Land. Might these have also been spiritual mementoes of venerated sites? Everything within this vessel was valued, but for varied 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 assembled it all.
The Galloway Hoard also contains more obvious symbols of wealth: the largest collection of Viking Age gold surviving from anywhere in Britain and Ireland. All of the gold objects are unusual and distinct from one another, perhaps suggesting that they come from distant places and different manufacturing traditions. As analysis continues, decoration techniques 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 textile-preservation were exceptional. Two bundles containing leather, linen, and silk (as both cord and fabric) have survived, wrapped around golden jewels. These are possibly Scotland’s oldest surviving examples of silk – this will be tested through a radiocarbon dating programme which will produce a fine-grained chronology for the organic materials and vital clues to the biographies of objects in the hoard.
Among these items are three gold filigree-decorated jewels wrapped in a bundle with silk-woven cord. They are of a type previously thought to be bejewelled manuscript pointers known as aestels in Anglo-Saxon historical sources (of which the ‘Alfred Jewel’ in the Ashmolean Museum in Oxford is the most famous), but the Galloway Hoard examples are prompting a re-evaluation of this interpretation. This is the first time a group of gold socketed mounts have been found together. As tubular sockets on the gold jewels match the diameter of the cord, it appears that they could be part of a single object – perhaps an elaborately woven silken girdle or belt-set decorated with gold filigree mounts.
A larger gold filigree-decorated pendant was also part of this group, strung on the same silken cord. Within its gold frame was a carefully shaped quadrangular piece of black schist – a relatively common stone that would not normally be treated like a gemstone; here its significance stems from its function. A pyramidal cap with gold clasps allowed the stone to be removed from its setting, and Scanning Electron Microscope analysis has recorded streaks of various precious metals, including gold, on the surface of the black stone. These traces identify the pendant as a touchstone used by metal-workers or traders for assaying (assessing the quality of) precious metals.
Another exotic object was a gold-mounted rock crystal jar that had been placed in a silk-lined leather pouch, and which may actually be one of the oldest items in the hoard. The technology needed to carve rock crystal was relatively rare in the ancient world – Imperial Rome had the knowledge, but there was then a lull until the later 10th century, when centres of production developed in the Islamic Caliphate, in modern-day Iraq and Egypt. The Galloway Hoard was buried 50-100 years before the Islamic boom in rock-crystal production, so where did this object come from? Although the silk protecting the crystal jar would have travelled from Asia to reach these shores, the crystal may be another heirloom – perhaps a relic of the Roman Empire.
Other clues come from the crystal’s decoration; the high-relief carving on the jar’s surface resembles the acanthus lobes of a Corinthian column capital, but upside-down. The square base and round top of the jar would suit an inverted column capital: the round base would have connected to the column below and the expanding square top to the architecture above. The Vatican collection includes rock crystal columns of a similar scale and a variety of forms, one from the early Christian cemetery of Domitilla in Rome. All have a drilled cavity in the centre, which would have allowed the Galloway Hoard rock crystal to be repurposed as an elaborate vial for containing small amounts of precious liquid such as perfume or oil. The well-worn crystal was sealed at the base with a gold filigree-decorated plate wrapped in gold mesh that connected to a cap with a spout.
The Galloway Hoard exhibition presents a wonderful opportunity to see these newly transformed objects first-hand but, as the range of unanswered questions in this article indicates, there is more work to do. National Museums Scotland has been awarded a grant by the Arts and Humanities Research Council to conduct a major research project into the hoard, in partnership with the University of Glasgow. Entitled ‘Unwrapping the Galloway Hoard’, the three-year initiative will enable far more detailed analysis and understanding of this unique collection of objects. The many organic materials, including leather, wood, gut, silk, linen, and wool, are archaeological treasures in their own right, but they also provide exciting opportunities for multi-disciplinary research when studied in combination with the exotic and precious materials they wrapped and connected. While precious metals like gold cannot be scientifically dated, the radiocarbon dating of associated organics will tell us more about how this collection came together over time. Dye analysis will bring lost colour back to life, and technological and manufacturing details will provide clues to distant origins. The project will also include 3D digital modelling, micro-CT scanning of the wrapped objects, chemical and material analysis, the engagement of three post-doctoral research assistants, and research symposiums facilitating knowledge exchange. This will all support a range of public outputs including the exhibition and tour, publications, online resources, and a programme for schools.
The exhibition and accompanying book, Galloway Hoard: Viking-age Treasure, present the story so far, but we are already a world away from a typical Viking Age hoard. The Viking Age is well-known for silver hoards, and there is over 5kg of bullion in the Galloway Hoard. But we would not expect to find Anglo-Saxon runes on this ‘Viking’ silver, and Anglo-Saxon metalwork is not common in Scotland. Tellingly, Galloway was referred to as ‘the Saxon coast’ in Irish sources, and during the 9th century AD it occupied an ambiguous position, at the westernmost extent of fluctuating Northumbrian political influence, but also connected to the Irish Sea zone. The material in the Galloway Hoard encapsulates these changing political and extra-regional influences, as well as the international connections of the Viking Age. Through the vessel and its contents, the Galloway Hoard also preserves something older and much more intriguing, perhaps a family treasury. Micro-history and macro-geography reach back across several centuries to Rome, perhaps the Holy Land, and beyond to the Silk Roads of Central Asia.
Dr Martin Goldberg is Principal Curator of Medieval Archaeology and History at National Museums Scotland.
Further information The Galloway Hoard: Viking-age Treasure runs at the National Museum of Scotland until 12 September. Entry is free with pre-booked museum entry; see www.nms.ac.uk/exhibitions-events/exhibitions/national-museum-of-scotland/the-galloway-hoard-viking-age-treasure for more information. CA will be talking to Martin Goldberg about the Galloway Hoard as part of the PastCast podcast; see www.the-past.com/podcasts
ALL IMAGES: National Museums Scotland.