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Illuminating a far-travelled vessel

The image shown here represents a fire altar with a triple-pointed crown in the flames as a central motif, surrounded by plant scrolls containing stylised leopards and tigers.

The Galloway Hoard, which we explored in detail in CA 376, is the earliest-known Viking Age hoard found in Scotland and contains many unique artefacts. One of the most-intriguing objects, though, is this silver-gilt vessel. Found in the lowest layer of the hoard, swaddled in textiles, it held a diverse array of carefully packaged objects, including beads, curios, and pendants, as well as examples of Anglo-Saxon metalwork not otherwise known in Scotland.

In preparation for the complex conservation and analysis of both the vessel and its wrapping, 3D X-ray imaging was undertaken at the British Museum. Further modelling of the data (produced with the help of the Glasgow School of Art and Steven Dey of Thinksee3D Ltd) has allowed the finer details decorating the vessel’s surface to be revealed. The image shown here represents a fire altar with a triple-pointed crown in the flames as a central motif, surrounded by plant scrolls containing stylised leopards and tigers. Although very similar in size and form to the other two silver-gilt vessels known from Viking hoards in Britain, this decoration is quite different. It suggests that the Galloway Hoard vessel was not made in the Carolingian Empire like the other two, but instead was inspired by iconography more common in the Sasanian Empire (primarily located in modern day Iran between the 3rd and 7th centuries), and possibly produced in Central Asia.

The analysis also revealed that, by the time the hoard was buried c.AD 900, the wool that the vessel was wrapped in was already 100-200 years old. Meanwhile, other objects within the vessel, including a coin minted for Coenwulf, ruler of the Anglo-Saxon kingdom of Mercia who died in AD 821, add to the idea that its contents had been kept as prized heirlooms.

The textiles wrapping the vessel are too fragile to be displayed, but a 3D replica is on show together with many of the other hoard objects in The Galloway Hoard: Viking-Age Treasure, an exhibition running at the National Museum of Scotland until 12 September: www.nms.ac.uk/exhibitions-events/exhibitions/national-museum-of-scotland/the-galloway-hoard-viking-age-treasure/.

TEXT: K Krakowka
IMAGES: Historic Environment Scotland/ National Museums Scotland/ThinkSee3D Ltd
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