Unwrapping the Galloway Hoard

14 mins read

Secrets of a unique Viking Age collection from south-west Scotland

Beads, curios, and heirloom objects that had been arranged on a silver brooch-hoop inside a lidded vessel; just some of the eclectic contents of the Viking Age Galloway Hoard. CREDIT: National Museums Scotland

Buried c.AD 900, the Galloway Hoard is thought to be Scotland’s earliest-known Viking Age hoard. In the years since its discovery in 2014, wide-ranging research has illuminated its eclectic and often unique contents. As a new exhibition opens, exploring the story so far, Martin Goldberg takes us through some of the latest findings.

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, 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?

The hoard was made up of four separate parcels arranged in two layers. The top layer (which this silver bullion comes from) may have been a decoy to distract thieves. CREDIT: National Museums Scotland

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 ploughsoil 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.

Christian objects like this pectoral cross are rare finds in Viking Age hoards. It is wrapped in the slender chain on which it would have been worn, and its Trewhiddle-style decorations suggest it is late Anglo-Saxon. CREDIT: National Museums Scotland

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 silversulphide 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.

Four arm-rings from the lower layer were found bound together as if in a contract. This bundle had originally surrounded a small wooden box containing these three gold objects. CREDIT: National Museums Scotland

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 80lbs 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 delicate pin in the shape of a bird is shown here in greater detail. Compared to silver, gold objects are relatively rare in Viking Age hoards. CREDIT: National Museums Scotland

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.


This is an extract of an article that appeared in CA 376. Read on in the magazine (click here to subscribe) or on our new website, The Past, which details of all the content of the magazine. At The Past you will be able to read each article in full as well as the content of our other magazines, Current World ArchaeologyMinerva, and Military History Matters.

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