10 min read

Uncovering the Galloway Viking Hoard, layer by layer

a photo of a bird brooch in gold

A bird brooch from the Galloway Hoard. ®National Museums Scotland

Hold on to your Viking helmet; you’re about to dig, layer by layer, into one of the most extraordinary Viking hoards ever found on the British Isles – the Galloway Hoard – with Dr Martin Goldberg, Senior Curator at National Museums Scotland

The team of metal detectorists had been working this field in Galloway for some time, but what they eventually found was way beyond their expectations.

The top layer contained eleven ingots and eleven silver arm-rings that had been flattened into bullion. They would have been made from the type of ingots they’re buried with. There’s a nice variety of decoration, with lots of punched lines and hatches. This type of arm-ring is normally found in hoards in Ireland and there are some from North Wales and from Lancashire – all around the Irish Sea, but we don’t have a lot of this particular type in Scotland. This hoard completes the circle around the Irish Sea.

They’re called a Hiberno-Scandinavian type of arm-ring and obviously the Scandinavian is the new element added to the cultural mix at the time, but they’re given that Hiberno- prefix because they’re normally found in Ireland. For me it is always the hyphen between these cultural labels where the interesting things are happening.

Galloway takes its name from the ‘Gallgáedil’ and that translates as ‘the Gaelic-speaking foreigners’, again suggesting the interesting cultural mix that these objects hint at. Their ancestors may have come from the Scandinavian world and they may still have ties there but they are now speaking Gaelic and are part of life in the territories surrounding the Irish Sea.

But by the time the Galloway Hoard is deposited around AD900 they have been here for a century; they’ve married and had children, they’ve made alliances and they’ve broken them, they have done their fair share of trade and plunder and all the rest, but they are also intimately involved in the politics of the Irish Sea region, whether that’s in Dublin, York, Lancashire, North Wales or Galloway.

These are the people that would have been wearing the silver arm-rings, which were very much part of this late 9th and early 10th century fashion and were worn in the whole Irish Sea region.

a photo of a hand holding a piece of metal with0 Viking runic symbols carved into it

Archaeologists onsite could see how some of the finds had Viking runic symbols carved into them © Church of Scotland / Derek McLennan

a photo of a man holding a silver coloured brooch

Dr Martin Goldberg Senior Curator National Museums Scotland takes a close look at New Faces – Quatre foil Brooches. Copyright Stewart Atwood

It’s important to remember that silver isn’t being mined in Scotland at this point so people are reliant on external sources. Four hundred years earlier it was the Roman world that was providing it from mines within the Roman Empire. Now the Scandinavian trade routes are bringing new sources of silver from as far away as the Islamic world. There are silver coins found in Scotland that are from mints in modern-day Iraq. They filter through the trade routes and can end up deposited with Anglo-Saxon coins and silver ingots on the Isle of Skye. So a lot of the silver tells us about the movement of wealth and the movement of people.

Ingots are a portable form of moving wealth around, but the arm-rings were more than this. They were probably to do with people, with their social groups and hierarchies; if you’re wealthy you would give an arm-ring to members of your group, your war band. They are signs of allegiance, wealth and reward. It’s a kind of social glue binding people together at this point.

There was one other thing in the top layer, which was an Anglo-Saxon style pectoral cross – a Christian cross that would have been worn on the chest. A very fine wire necklace is wrapped around it, suggesting that it was recently worn. The central fitting is missing; they seem to have popped something off the middle of it that would have probably been a three-dimensional boss.

It’s elaborately decorated with gold leaf and niello decoration. Niello is a black paste that you make from silver sulphide to create contrast so that when you carve a design into silver the paste creates a dark background against the brightness of the silver, which you need to understand the designs. There’s also gold leaf that enhances certain features.

The presence of the cross is interesting. Our view of the Vikings is very much skewed by the historical record written by Christian monks in monasteries. One hundred years before the Galloway Hoard was deposited the Vikings have this massive impact, raiding at Lindisfarne and Iona, and this echoes through the centuries and shapes the way that we view the Viking Age now.

So the eleven arm rings, eleven ingots and this wonderful Anglo-Saxon cross are in itself a great find, but the cross also hints at what was lurking below.

a photo of a cross lying on a surface

The Anglo-Saxon style pectoral cross. Copyright National Museums Scotland.

The Christian cross with decoration shortly after it emerged from the earth. © Courtesy Church of Scotland / Derek McLennan

Natural gravel was lying underneath that top layer and the finders thought they were done. But they ran the metal detector across just to check that they had got all the small fragments, and still they were getting a really strong signal. So the archaeologist on site carried on digging and discovered three other richer parcels underneath.

The first parcel contained the same type of thing, arm-rings and ingots, but twice as many as above. Again the arm-rings are mostly flattened and folded, and tightly bundled together. A second arm-ring bundle wasn’t flattened. They were much more elaborately decorated and bound together by a fifth smaller arm-ring. Inside this bundle hides a small wooden box with three gold objects in it: a ring, an ingot and a beautiful bird-shaped pin. A third parcel in the lower layer is an amazing Carolingian or continental lidded cup. It’s 10 cm high and 10 cm in diameter and is jam-packed full of all sorts of really exotic material.

Exotic is a funny word but it really does encapsulate what this is. Exotic can mean ‘foreign’ or ‘coming from other places’ and that’s what a lot of this material is. But exotic is often used to mean ‘unusual’ and ‘intriguing’ and the stuff inside this vessel is certainly intriguing – there are things in there that we have never seen before.

“They don’t normally survive but this is one of those freaks of preservation”

The whole vessel is wrapped in two layers of textiles made up of a fine inner layer and a coarser outer layer, which has been carefully wrapped around the lid. From an archaeological perspective, textiles are incredibly rare. They just don’t survive normally, but this is one of those freaks of preservation. The corrosive atmosphere created by copper as it’s leaking out of the silver also has an antimicrobial effect that kills the things that would normally cause the textiles to rot, so we have this unusual effect where the corroding metal has helped to preserve these textiles.

But then inside the vessel there is also a range of other organic materials, including bits of cord that have held together some of the beads that are hidden inside it.

When the lid was taken off there were a range of beads and pendants near the top. Some of these are glass beads that are fairly well known types from the early mediaeval period in Britain and Ireland, but they’re very well worn. They might be heirlooms.

One of the beads has been completely transformed into a different type of object. Normally a glass bead has a hole in it so you can string it, but in this case they’ve inserted a metal rod through it with a pendant fitting with a hook and a sunflower shaped silver framework that wraps around the bead. Where the pendant goes through they’ve also put a perforated coin, which is probably 50 or 60 years older than when we think this hoard has been deposited. We think the hoard was being buried somewhere around AD900 to 920. So to me this pendant bead with an older coin looks like an heirloom piece that’s been transformed at some point in its life.

a photo of two decorated wrist bands

Copyright National Museums Scotland

a photo of a range of objects including brooches and wrist bands

Copyright National Museums Scotland

Then there is an Irish-style brooch, called a bossed penannular brooch, and underneath that are Anglo-Saxon disc brooches, which are quite an unusual find, a first for Scotland, and certainly exotic in terms of being from ‘beyond Scotland’.

There are also some new types of Anglo-Saxon brooches, related to the disc brooches, but a slightly different shape and with unusual faces engraved on them, and a couple of strange, hinged mounts decorated in the same style as the cross, with the gold leaf and niello. It’s a really interesting group of late Anglo-Saxon metalwork and, again, quite unusual material that begs the questions – what are they doing in this hoard and how did they get here?

A lot of the material in the hoard is actually telling us about the complexities of what’s going on at the beginning of the 10th century. Down south, Wessex has been pushing back against the Danelaw and the very idea of England is becoming a common notion.

In Scotland there is a Gaelic-speaking kingdom called Alba forming, again under pressure from Scandinavian settlers in the west, and in Ireland similar pressures are causing political shifts. At this point in time the later mediaeval kingdoms that we think of as Scotland, Ireland and England are just coming into being.

“Going further inside, the material becomes more unusual, more exotic and more valuable”

The hoard tells us interesting things about the beginnings of that process and the connections from Galloway to Northumbria, Dublin, southern England and beyond. From that cultural mix comes the later mediaeval kingdoms which are the foundations of the modern nations that we know today.

Further inside the vessel is a gold ingot, a twisted gold rod and a gold pendant with really fine filigree decoration on it. Going further inside, the material becomes more unusual, more exotic and more valuable. At the very bottom are two textile bundles where the material has been carefully wrapped and we have scanned these to try and identify what they are.

One bundle contains three gold filigree mounts with sockets on them and these are thought to be manuscript pointers. These are usually only single finds, and again normally only found in England. Here we have three of them wrapped up together with a load of cord and other textiles. The scan shows preservation in the socket of some sort of organic material so we might be able to tell what sort of rod it was. They haven’t been unpacked yet – they’re still in their bundles, so this is going to be one of the major focuses of the research programme.

There is an interesting question about what these things, which are sometimes called aestels, actually are and where they come from. We’ve got three of them together for the first time with all of this organic information, and we’ll probably be able to say a lot more about these objects than anybody has ever been able to do previously.

a photo of a man examining a brooch

Dr Martin Goldberg, Senior Curator at National Museums Scotland with objects from the Galloway Hoard. Copyright National Museums Scotland

The final bundle is like a jeweller’s box – leather on the outside with a soft cushioned inner layer and an innermost layer of silk wrapping a gold-mounted small jar. This seems to be made of rock crystal like quartz but very pure – almost like glass, but much harder. The centres for rock crystal production in the 10th century are again usually associated with the Islamic world. The silk would ultimately have come via the Eastern Mediterranean. So what this looks like is something that’s wrapped very carefully and has travelled a great distance.

The scan suggests it could be hollow so we might have something inside there, some trace that we have yet to reveal, which would be very interesting. There are treasures within treasures here; an amazing exotic object wrapped in amazing textiles that we’ve never seen before.

It’s also the earliest example of silk from Scotland, wrapped in a textile bundle which doesn’t normally survive, within a vessel that’s full of exotic material, which is part of the largest hoard of Viking-age gold objects surviving from Britain and Ireland… You start to lose yourself in the scales of significance eventually.

It really is international in its scope and as the National Museum of Scotland we are best placed to tell that story to the widest possible audience. We’ll be doing a national programme of touring because it deserves to be widely seen, widely known and widely understood.

If we get everything carefully conserved, and use our research strengths to tell the best story that we can about it now, people will still be researching this in 50 and a 100 years’ time. There will be scientific techniques borrowed and developed from other fields that will, because of the organic preservation within it, allow future researchers to say things about the Galloway Hoard that we couldn’t dream of discovering right now. And that’s a really exciting prospect – I can’t wait to learn more about it.

Dr Goldberg was speaking to Richard Moss

National Museum Scotland is fundrasisng to raise the £1.98million by November 12 2017 needed to save, preserve and display the Galloway Hoard. Find out more and donate at www.nms.ac.uk/support-us/save-the-galloway-hoard/

A display featuring some of the treasures from the Galloway Hoard can be seen in the Grand Gallery, Level 1, at National Museum Scotland until October 1 2017. Admission is free. 

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