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Rock crystal jar from the Galloway Hoard

Galloway Hoard Restoration Reveals More Surprising Secrets

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Researchers have revealed that what is perhaps Europe’s most famous Viking Age hoard – the Galloway Hoard – was not a rapidly concealed family treasure being hidden from invaders. Rather, it was a ritually assembled and buried treasure representing four men of different statuses in Viking Age Scotland. They’ve also found crucial evidence that some of the treasures may have come from a church in the Anglo-Saxon kingdom of Northumbria.

The famous “Galloway Hoard” was unearthed by a metal-detectorist in 2014 at Balmaghie, in Kirkcudbrightshire, in the southwest of Scotland. It was subsequently acquired for Scotland's National Collection for £2million (around $2.6 million). Containing an exotic array of materials and treasures from Ireland, the Anglo-Saxon kingdoms, and Asia, according to National Museums of Scotland ( NMS) it is regarded as “the richest collection of rare and unique Viking-age objects ever found in Britain or Ireland.”

A “Surprising and Unique Object”

Buried around 900 AD, the Galloway Hoard is now back in the press. Researchers have now restored a mangled and misshapen item that was wrapped in a silk-lined leather pouch, revealing a remarkable Roman rock crystal jar covered by intricate layers of gold thread.

It only measures about 5 cm (2 inches) high, but this is a real treasure. The researchers believe that it once contained a perfume or other prized potion that may have been used to anoint kings or in religious ceremonies. Dr. Martin Goldberg is the principal curator of Medieval archaeology at NMS, and he explained, “The type of liquid that we would expect would be something very exotic, perhaps a perfume from the Orient, something’s that’s travelled in the same way that the silk has. There were certain types of exotic oil that were used in anointing kings and ecclesiastical ceremonies.”

Future studies may be able to find trace elements of the chemicals which created the liquid held in the jar.

The rock crystal jar. ( Neil Hanna/National Museums Scotland )

Dr. Goldberg has described the jar as “really beautiful” and “a really surprising and unique object” - in part because he has discovered that the rock crystal jar is actually Roman. His research suggests that the artifact was already around 500 years old before it was wrapped in gold. He said:

“It looks, from the carved surface of the Galloway Hoard rock crystal, that this was once the capital of a Corinthian-style crystal column.  This is unique in early medieval Britain but there are parallels within the Roman Empire for objects of this type. The ones that I have seen are in the Vatican collection, where there are different forms of carved crystal columns. And so it was maybe 500 years old by the time it was transformed in the late 8th or early 9th century into a gold-wrapped jar.”

The restoration work also provided another exciting discovery about this jar – a Latin inscription on its base. When translated the gold letters state “Bishop Hyguald had me made.” This is a fantastic find because it shows that at least some of the hoard’s items may have come from Northumbria. Dr. Goldberg also notes, “There are very few names to work with. But this is adding new information, building a much richer picture” of the hoard.

The bottom of the rock crystal jar. ( Neil Hanna )

Four Owners

Archaeologists believe that four different owners, of different social backgrounds, might have come together to bury this spectacular, and deeply-mystical, collection of curious and culturally priceless Viking-age treasures.

Pectoral cross from the Galloway Hoard. (National Museums Scotland / CC BY-SA 4.0 )

Dr. Goldberg said the “stereotypical Viking hoard,” is created when people came under immediate threat of attack. The families of Vikings often buried treasure in the ground in haste, so they could be hidden and potentially retrieved later – it was one thing knowing you were going to be slaughtered, but the last thing you would want is the invader increasing his wealth on your life savings as well.

Left: Large silver alloy Carolingian vessel, which was part of the hoard. Right: Derek McLennan, the finder of the treasure hoard. (Jamie Simpson)

Left: Large silver alloy Carolingian vessel, which was part of the hoard. Right: Derek McLennan, the finder of the treasure hoard. (Jamie Simpson)

But this was not the case for the Galloway Hoard, said Dr. Goldberg. It appears to have been carefully assembled in an almost ritualistic nature, with no signs of having been buried in a rush. This is supported by the finds themselves: close analysis of a silver-gilt vessel that made up one of the layers reveals it was packed full of carefully wrapped wool.

The rare collection of gold and silver jewelry, curios and cloths, was buried in the south west of Scotland more than 1,000 years ago, arranged over four distinct layers in the ground. Dr. Goldberg said there are "four separate groups of arm rings in the hoard but they are not equal in quality so we believe the four owners may not be equal in status.”

An article in The Scotsman notes the names Ed, Til and Ber” have been found engraved on silver arms rings, and on a fourth Runic inscription yet to be translated, and these are all “Anglo-Saxon abbreviations”. Dr. Goldberg said these abbreviations, “bring the people connected to the hoard to the fore,” and he added that while quite often with people in the past there is no face, in this case there are four.

A “Mind Blowing” Discovery

Dr .Goldberg said the collection of objects resulted in a “mind blowing” discovery for the museum. He chose this term as the find is truly unusual, with only two other lidded vessels ever being found in Viking Age hoards in Britain and Ireland. The vessel was dated to 680-780 AD and wrapped in wool too fragile to scan even with 3D lasers. Dr. Goldberg said the designs on the jewelry show “leopards, tigers and Zoroastrian religious symbols,” all suggesting at least that this piece was crafted in Central Asia.

The Viking Age is well-known for its gold and silver hoards and many similar discoveries have been found around Britain or Ireland. However, the Galloway Hoard brings together a stunning variety of materials in one discovery, as well as objects which have never before been discovered in Viking Age hoard.

Further finds from the Galloway hoard (National Museums Scotland / CC BY-SA 4.0)

Further finds from the Galloway hoard (National Museums Scotland / CC BY-SA 4.0 )

A three-year research program probing further into the origins of the hoard is now underway at Glasgow University. But for now, Professor Goldberg told The Independent that researchers are trying to further understand the lives of the people who assembled the hoard, through the treasured objects that they so valued they went to the grave with them.

Top image: The rock crystal jar of the Galloway Hoard. Source: Neil Hanna

By Ashley Cowie

Updated on December 19, 2021.

Comments

There are clearly Celtic influences on some of these items.  They’re beautiful.

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