Viking Age Treasures Clean Up Nicely: Galloway Hoard Reveals New Secrets
Around the time the Irish were stamping out the Viking presence in their country, local lore says the Scots and Vikings also fought a battle near Galloway, Scotland. In 2014, a metal detectorist took that legend, swept the area, and discovered a hoard of more than 100 “strange and wonderful objects” that are at least 1,000 years old. Now those Viking hoard relics have been cleaned up and experts say “the richest collection of rare and unique Viking-age objects ever found in Britain or Ireland” is providing new and valuable information.
The Story Continues
A remarkable Anglo-Saxon silver cross is the Galloway hoard artifact that is currently in the limelight. The Guardian reports that “Such is its quality that whoever commissioned this treasure may have been a high-standing cleric or even a king.” What makes the cross so special? The amazing metalwork of an Anglo-Saxon craftsperson to start.
According to The Scotsman, the artist crafted an equal-armed cross “in Late Anglo-Saxon style using black niello and gold-leaf.” The symbols of Saint Matthew (man), Mark (lion), Luke (cow), and John (eagle), are depicted on the four arms. Dr. Martin Goldberg, the principal curator of early Medieval and Viking collections at the National Museum of Scotland in Edinburgh says:
“It’s just spectacular. There really isn’t a parallel. That is partly because of the time period it comes from. We imagine that a lot of ecclesiastical treasures were robbed from monasteries – that’s what the historical record of the Viking age describes to us. This is one of the survivals. The quality of the workmanship is just incredible. It’s a real privilege to see this after 1,000 years.”
A millennium’s worth of dirt has been removed from the Anglo-Saxon cross buried in the 9th century. (National Museums Scotland)
And Dr. Leslie Webster, former Keeper of Britain, Prehistory and Europe at the British Museum, provided more about the unique nature of the cross, saying:
“The pectoral cross, with its subtle decoration of evangelist symbols and foliage, glittering gold and black inlays, and its delicately coiled chain, is an outstanding example of the Anglo-Saxon goldsmith’s art. It was made in Northumbria in the later ninth century for a high-ranking cleric, as the distinctive form of the cross suggests. Anglo-Saxon crosses of this kind are exceptionally rare, and only one other – much less elaborate – is known from the ninth century. The discovery of this pendant cross, in such a remarkable context, is of major importance for the study of early medieval goldsmith’s work, and for our understanding of Viking and Anglo-Saxon interactions in this turbulent period.”
NMS stated in 2019 that several finds from the UK and Ireland have been remarkable as well, but the Galloway hoard offers an incredible variety of objects, revealing previously unknown relationships between European nations in the 10th century; a fact that opens new horizons of study and research on the matter.
Dr. Goldberg said at the time, “It’s an unfolding story. We want to come up with a biography for each object, from its origin to how it was used to when it was deposited in the ground and then tie the 100 stories together.” The magnificent cross is just one story being told.
Extensive Conservation work on the Viking Hoard
Goldberg told The Scotsman that conservation work has “completely transformed” the appearance of some of the artifacts. It is also providing researchers with “a better understanding now of the international range of hoard.” He said:
“There were always clues about the origins of some of the material and the amazing trajectories that brought them across Europe and Asia to be buried in Galloway. But we are learning more about the specifics about where things have come from and how old various things might be and for how long the hoard may have been accumulated for. We’re sticking to AD 900 for the burial but some objects are looking like they are several centuries older.”
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The years of conservation work have been very productive. Goldberg says that a team has completed all sorts of tasks, ranging from “basic swabbing to X-rays and CT scanning.” And these analyses have enabled the researchers to “get a different understanding of the different densities of material in each object, and a different understanding of how each object was made and what has happened to it since then.” Even the corrosion of an artifact has proven useful, as Goldberg explains:
“Sometimes we’re looking at an object that is corroded that has important information in the layers of corrosion that tell you something about what it was next to or the things that was about it. Rather than just clean the corrosion off we have to record it as carefully as possible because it is preserving minute traces of information. We’ve found potential traces of embroidered silk which is only preserved in green corrosion on objects.”
Traces of linen, wood, and leather have also been detected on some of the artifacts, which Goldberg states “is very unusual” in a hoard.
An Amateur Treasure Hunter Received 2 Million Pounds for His Discovery
Derek McLennan, a British metal detectorist who unearthed the rich collection of unique Viking artifacts, received an astonishing £2 million (US$2.6m) as a reward. The amount is ex gratia and was set to reflect the market value of the find.
McLennan discovered the 10th-century hoard in a Dumfries and Galloway field (one of 32 unitary council areas of Scotland) in 2014. The incredibly valuable treasure includes silver bracelets and brooches, a gold ring, a bird-shaped gold pin, an enameled Christian cross , and a Carolingian vessel filled with artifacts.
Left: Large silver alloy Carolingian vessel, which was part of the hoard. Right: Derek McLennan, the finder of the treasure hoard. Photograph: Jamie Simpson
McLennan notified the authorities about his valuable finds and three years later the Queen’s and Lord Treasurer’s Remembrancer (the body that rules on ownerless goods and property), ruled that the 100 unique items of the hoard should be held with National Museums Scotland (NMS) for public display, after offering the enormous sum ex gratia to McLennan.
In contrast with the rest of the UK, where awards are split with the landowner, rules on discoveries in Scotland reward only the finder - who receives the whole payment. Dr. Evelyn Silber, University of Glasgow’s honorary professorial research fellow in History of Art and Safap chair, told The Guardian , “The panel is grateful to the finder for reporting these stunning artefacts which include decorative glass beads, silver bracelets and brooches, a gold ring, a bird-shaped gold pin and a highly-decorated gilt vessel recognized as being one of only three known examples. These will now be preserved and put on display for the people of Scotland, and the world, to enjoy.”
The Discovery of the Galloway Hoard
But how did Derek McLennan end up discovering the richest Viking hoard in British history? Was it pure luck or did he know something? As reported in a 2014 Ancient Origins article , McLennan used a metal detector on Church of Scotland land when he picked up a signal indicating the presence of metal beneath the ground.
He dug down 24 inches (60cm) before finding the first item. As soon as Derek recovered the first arm-ring he realized the significance of his find and contacted the Scottish Treasure Trove Unit. They sent an experienced archaeologist, Andy Nicholson, and the hoard was excavated properly.
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Some of the treasures: A silver disk brooch decorated with intertwining snakes or serpents (Historic Scotland), a gold, bird-shaped object which may have been a decorative pin or a manuscript pointer (Robert Clark, National Geographic / Historic Environment Scotland), one of the many arm rings with a runic inscription (Robert Clark, National Geographic / Historic Environment Scotland), a large glass bead (Santiago Arribas Pena), and a hinged silver strap (Robert Clark, National Geographic / Historic Environment Scotland).
Dr. Goldberg pointed out that the spectacular cross is only part of the Galloway hoard’s story, there is still work to be done with the Viking Age treasures, "The cross is a wonderfully visual representation of the work we have been doing to reveal new details about the hoard. The conservation work lets us see this object clearly for the first time in over a thousand years, but it also reveals a whole new set of questions,” he said.
The Guardian reports that the Anglo-Saxon cross will be on display in a special exhibition called ‘Galloway Hoard: Viking-age Treasure’ at the National Museum in Edinburgh from February 19 – May 9. Then it will travel to be exhibited in Kirkcudbright, Dundee, and Aberdeen.
Updated on December 15, 2020.