No one knows for certain why Viking Age people chose to bury their most treasured possessions underground. According to one 13th-century source, the influential Icelandic poet Snorri Sturluson, they did it because Odin – the Norse god who oversees Valhalla – had decreed that a man will have the use in the afterlife of any treasure he buried while still alive.
More recently, however, archaeologists and historians have preferred more earthbound explanations for the presence in the British Isles of so many Viking Age ‘hoards’ (as these wealth deposits are known). More likely, they reason, the practice of burying valuable items, such as coins and jewellery, came as a response to danger, or as the result of short-term pragmatism on the part of individuals who for one reason or another were subsequently unable to reclaim their belongings.
In some cases, it seems, these mysterious time capsules were left undisturbed because the individuals who buried them had been killed, captured or forced to flee. In others, because people were simply unable to retrace their steps. As Gareth Williams, the curator of early-medieval coinage and Viking collections at the British Museum, explained recently: “Imagine using a tree as your spot for location, and then a big storm comes and blows the tree down, or some other Vikings come along and chop it up for firewood. It’s easy to imagine circumstances in which they couldn’t find what they buried.”
But whatever the reasons for their initial abandonment, the result is that many of these Viking Age hoards were to remain hidden under the fields and parks and gardens and beaches of the British Isles throughout the succeeding centuries – until, that is, the widespread introduction of metal-detecting technology in the second half of the 20th century contributed to a flurry of exciting discoveries.
As we discover this week on The Past, one of the most extraordinary finds of recent years was that made by a metal detectorist in south-west Scotland, who in 2014 came across a stunning array of Viking Age treasures which had lain buried for more than 1,100 years. Today, the Galloway Hoard, as it is known, is recognised as the richest collection of rare and unique Viking Age objects ever found in Britain or Ireland – and as it goes on display for the first time, in an exhibition opening on 29 May at the National Museum of Scotland, principal curator Martin Goldberg tells its story in the new issue of our sister magazine Current Archaeology and on the latest edition of The PastCast, our unmissable podcast (available from 27 May).
Elsewhere on The Past, we’ve been searching for more buried treasure, delving into the Current Archaeology archives to bring you the best writing and the most insightful thinking about hoarding: in CA 373, we visited Jersey to see how Britain’s biggest Iron Age hoard is being conserved; in CA 368, we learned what the Havering Hoard can teach us about Bronze Age life on the fringes of London; in CA 361, we uncovered the dark side of the metal-detecting boom, as we investigated the theft of a spectacular Viking hoard in Herefordshire; and in CA 356, we examined what the Chew Valley Hoard has to say about the aftermath of the Norman Conquest.
Finally, if all that still isn’t enough, please don’t forget to click on the link to our fiendish Friday quiz, which this week is also designed to put your hoarding knowledge to the test. Good luck, and we hope you enjoy The Past!
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