Ongoing conservation of the Galloway Hoard, a unique Viking Age assemblage buried near Balmaghie in south-west Scotland c.AD 900, has identified an inscription naming a medieval bishop on the base of a rock crystal jar. Discovered by a metal-detectorist in 2014, the hoard comprises more than 100 objects of gold, silver, copper-alloy, glass, earth, crystal, and other minerals, with origins ranging from Ireland, the Anglo-Saxon kingdoms, and as far away as Asia (see CA 376). The bishop’s name – ‘Hyguald’ – was noticed during conservation work being carried out as part of a three-year Arts and Humanities Research Council-funded project led by National Museums Scotland (NMS) in conjunction with the University of Glasgow.
The 5cm-high jar (above) was buried in a silk-lined leather pouch inside a lidded, silver-gilted vessel positioned at the lowest level of the hoard and filled with an eclectic mix of unusual artefacts. ‘Rock crystal is unusual in itself,’ Dr Leslie Webster, former Keeper of Britain, Prehistory, and Europe at the British Museum, said. ‘It is one of those materials that was greatly prized in the antique world, for its transparency and translucency, and so it is associated with purity.’
The pouch containing the jar was removed from the lidded container during the initial Treasure Trove process, but the object within the pouch remained hidden. Working in partnership with Dan O’Flynn in the Department of Scientific Research at the British Museum, NMS went on to produce further X-ray images of the jar in its pouch from all angles, taking over 1,000 scans. These were then combined to create a 3D digital model of the item, which allowed researchers to conduct an even more detailed, non-destructive analysis of the jar’s structure. The carved surface, with nodules resembling acanthus leaves, hinted at the origin of the crystal.
Dr Martin Goldberg, Principal Curator, Medieval Archaeology and History, at National Museums Scotland, explained that the ‘jar’ may have started life in the Classical period as a miniature architectural model: ‘It looks, from the carved surface of the Galloway Hoard rock crystal, that this was once the capital of a Corinthian-style crystal column. This is unique in early medieval Britain, but there are parallels within the Roman Empire for objects of this type. The ones that I have seen are in the Vatican collection, where there are different forms of carved crystal columns. And so it was at least 500 years old by the time it was transformed in the late 8th or early 9th century into a gold-wrapped jar.’
As well as a narrow internal channel, the scans also revealed a gold filigree Latin inscription on the base of the jar which translates as ‘Bishop Hyguald had me made’. This suggests that the jar may have had an ecclesiastical function, perhaps as a container for a small amount of liquid. But who was this Hyguald? ‘The sources and records of the period are incomplete, but what we do know from them is that there were several ecclesiastics in early medieval Northumbria with the name Hyguald,’ Professor Alex Woolf, Senior Lecturer at the University of St Andrews, said. ‘We don’t know of a Bishop Hyguald, specifically, but our lists of Northumbrian bishops are incomplete after 810. It is accordingly – and frustratingly – difficult to be more precise, but it may well be that what we’re looking at is an otherwise undocumented mid-9th-century bishop of either Whithorn or Hexham.’
The Galloway Hoard is currently on display at Kirkudbright Galleries as part of a travelling exhibition that will move to Aberdeen Art Gallery from 30 July to 23 October. For more information about the hoard, see www.nms.ac.uk.