The Galloway Hoard
Curator preview of this summer’s major exhibition
The Galloway Hoard is the richest collection of rare and unique Viking-age objects ever found in Britain or Ireland. Buried around the end of the 9th century, it brings together silver, gold and archaeological treasures from Ireland, the AngloSaxon kingdoms, and as far away as Asia. It was discovered by a metal-detectorist in 2014 on what is now Church of Scotland land at Balmaghie in Kirkcudbrightshire. Evidence for buildings around the hoard site has been found, but needs further investigation. The hoard was saved for the nation by National Museums Scotland in 2017 after a major fundraising campaign supported by the National Heritage Memorial Fund, Artfund and many individual donors.
Since then, curators and conservators have been working to clean, conserve and understand the Hoard. The results to date will be shown in a new exhibition, Galloway Hoard: Viking-age Treasure, which will open at the National Museum of Scotland in Edinburgh before touring to Kirkcudbright Galleries and Aberdeen Art Gallery, thanks to support from the Scottish Government.
The exhibition, sponsored by Baillie Gifford Investment Managers, will offer the first chance to see details hidden for a millennium. The Galloway Hoard was buried in two distinct layers with clearly separate groups, which gives a rare insight into how the collection was brought together and buried. Uncovering its secrets has been, and still is, a multilayered process.
In the 9th century AD,
Scandinavian connections across the North Sea brought warfare, trade and settlement to Britain and Ireland. Scandinavian dynasties controlled territories from the Western Isles to East Anglia and trade centres in Dublin and York, disrupting existing kingdoms and politics. A fresh influx of silver is one of the best archaeological indicators of these new influences. Silver arm-rings
Over 5 kilograms of silver bullion made up of arm-rings and ingots form the bulk of the hoard. The most common objects in the hoard are broad-band silver arm-rings, made by hammering out carefully measured portions of ingots. This type of arm-ring is mostly found in Ireland and in hoards of silver bullion discovered around the Irish Sea, in north Wales and northern England. Many arm-rings and ingots in the Galloway Hoard are standardised weights, multiples of a 26.6 gram unit, equivalent to an ounce of silver. The best evidence for this weight system comes from the Vikingage settlement of Dublin where many lead weights of this unit have been found. This shows a common silver economy around the Irish Sea.
Although arm-rings cannot be dated directly, other hoards containing similar arm-rings also contain coins dating to AD 880-930. This suggests that the Galloway Hoard is Scotland’s earliest Vikingage hoard. Unusually, in the top layer of bullion, there was also an Anglo-Saxon cross – recently worn before burial, but damaged. Both Anglo-Saxon metalwork and Christian objects are very unusual in Viking-age hoards. Was the cross also bullion, destined to be melted down into the types of ingots with which it was found? We can easily imagine this cross being robbed from a Christian cleric during a raid on a church – a classic stereotype of the Viking Age. Yet this hoard was buried on what is now church land, as were many in Ireland. These were places where sanctuary could be claimed for possessions and people alike.
The top layer was almost like a decoy, with a much richer layer below hidden beneath natural-looking gravel. Within the lower group of silver bullion there are clues to four owners. Four arm-rings are inscribed with Anglo-Saxon runes that were parts of Old English names. One complete name, Egbert, was also
carved into a hacked armring from the surrounding site. These silver arm-rings are often labelled as ‘Viking’ artefacts, but unexpectedly these runic inscriptions use Anglo-Saxon rather than Scandinavian runes. By the time these arm-rings were inscribed, Anglo-Saxon runes had been used in Britain for over 400 years and had developed some different letter forms from Scandinavian runes. Each of the runic-inscribed arm-rings in the lower bullion deposit are folded and flattened in a distinctive way. There are groups of broad-band arm-rings which match each of the four folding patterns, suggesting the lower bullion could be sub-divided although not necessarily into an equal split as the groups are different in number and weight.
There is another group of silver arm-rings that are different from the rest of the bullion. These four elaborately-decorated ribbon arm-rings are complete, unhacked and as they would have been worn. But all four have been bound together tightly by a smaller arm-ring. Again, four arm-rings suggest four possible owners, although not necessarily equals. The four ribbon arm-rings have had different lives. One is very well-worn, another is warped but with little wear. The third is pristine and barely worn, with fine detail in the punched decoration. The fourth and largest is twice the size of the others, a double arm-ring with pointed-eared beasts whose tongues become the knot binding the two bands together. This unusual cluster of arm-rings surrounded a small wooden box containing three gold objects – a ring, an ingot and a pin in the shape of a bird.
Gold is much rarer to find than silver in Viking-age hoards. The Galloway Hoard includes the largest collection of gold surviving from Viking-age Britain and Ireland. All of the gold objects are unusual and distinct from one another, perhaps coming from distant places and different manufacturing traditions. The rest of the gold was within a lidded vessel at the heart of the lower layer.
This is only the third silver-gilt and decorated vessel to be found in a Viking-age hoard in the UK. There are some key differences that make the Galloway Hoard vessel distinct. Other vessels contained silver. Here the silver bullion was buried outside and the contents of this vessel are unlike any other Viking-age hoard. This is also the only vessel with a surviving lid. Most importantly, this vessel was carefully wrapped in three layers of textile. We are recording and preserving these rare survivals for the future. Threedimensional X-ray imaging has allowed us to see beneath the textiles for a privileged glimpse of the decorated surface of the vessel, which will be seen for the first time during the exhibition.
The lid sealing the vessel also helped to create unusual conditions within for leather and textile preservation. These materials are of huge value to archaeologists because they rarely survive and, unlike gold or silver, they can be scientifically analysed using techniques such as radiocarbon dating.
Everything at the top of the vessel was wrapped, but the evidence has only partly survived. The best evidence survives on an unusual ‘relic’ pendant made from a bead enclosed in silver and capped with a perforated coin.
The coin was minted for Coenwulf, the king of Anglo-Saxon Mercia (died AD 821), probably several generations before the hoard was buried. This is the clearest clue that the unusual collection of beads, pendant and curios at the top of the vessel had been handed down as heirlooms. Old and well-worn, it seems that these objects were valued for their age or past ownership.
The contents of the vessel include a substantial collection of Late Anglo-Saxon metalwork. There are five disc-brooches more normally found in the Anglo-Saxon kingdoms of southern and eastern Britain. Unique to the Galloway Hoard are two unusual cross-shaped (quatrefoil) brooches depicting two of the five senses – sight and sound. A pair of multi-hinged straps, perhaps elaborate bracelets, are also unique for AngloSaxon metalwork. First signalled by the cross in the top ‘decoy’ layer, this collection of Anglo-Saxon metalwork is unusual for Scotland. Like the AngloSaxon runes on the silver arm-rings, this range of objects complicates the stereotype of a ‘Viking’ hoard.
Lower down within the carefully packed vessel, the material becomes even more unusual and exotic. The conditions for textile preservation at the bottom of the sealed vessel were exceptional. Two bundles containing leather, linen and silk – as both cord and fabric – have been preserved, wrapped around golden jewels and a carved rock crystal jar with gold fittings. In contrast, two balls of dirt seem mundane at first glance, but must have been of great significance to their owners. The rare survival of combinations of organic and inorganic materials offer many more clues than are available for most hoards and provide unique opportunities for research.
This exhibition presents the story so far and a wonderful opportunity to see these now transformed objects first hand but, as the range of unanswered questions in this article indicates, there is more work to do. National Museums Scotland has been awarded a grant by the Arts and Humanities Research Council to conduct a £1 million research project into the hoard. The three-year research project, entitled ‘Unwrapping the Galloway Hoard’, will be carried out in partnership with the University of Glasgow. The research project will enable far more detailed analysis and understanding of the hoard, including precise dating of the material, 3D digital modelling, chemical and materials analysis, the engagement of three post-doctoral research assistants, and research symposiums supporting a range of public outputs including the exhibition and tour, publications, online resources and a programme for schools.
Galloway Hoard: Viking-age Treasure is at National Museum of Scotland, Edinburgh this summer. www.nms.ac.uk