The Galloway Hoard – Spells and Spaceships
Spells and Spaceships

The Galloway Hoard

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By Rowena M Andrews

September 2014 saw one of the most notable discoveries of a Viking-age treasure hoard within the UK and Ireland. Not by an archaeologist, but by a Metal Detectorist. The find occurred on what is now Church of Scotland land in Balmaghie, Galloway – which in 2017 was included in a paper on Metal Detecting Hotspots in Scotland.

Galloway itself does not feature clearly in historical records from the period in question, however, its coastal connection with the Irish sea and the related finds in that region (see left), as well as well-documented formative events in the nearby areas due provide some sense of context, especially in light of the items within the hoard.

The nature of the Hoard itself would also suggest that Galloway had been exposed, however, tangentially to a broader crossroads of influences than historical sources might previously have indicated, perhaps due to its coastal location as well as the intersection of Anglo-Saxon and Scandinavian influences.

The Hoard:

The Galloway Hoard has been described as one of the richest and most varied Viking-age treasure hoards, containing items and materials that were not seen elsewhere or hadn’t been as richly preserved – particularly in terms of the textiles. Even the layout of the hoard itself was somewhat unusual, in that included a decoy layer, with the richer part of the horde concealed beneath and further hidden by what appeared to be natural gravel. 

The decoy layer itself was somewhat more typical of what was expected from a Viking-age hoard, in that it contained silver bullion – primarily in the form of silver ingots and Hiberno-Scandanvian Arm-Rings (see below). This period was marked by the increased availability of silver due to trade connections with Scandanavia, the Baltic and further afield  – with the primary sources of Viking-age silver in the British Isles being Anglo-Saxon, Carolingian, and Islamic coinage. 

However, this layer did also include an unusual item – a richly decorated Christian Cross and chain (pictured below). The chain wrapped around the cross indicates that this had been worn, and the item also shows signs of wear – including something missing from the middle. The cross is one of the items that also indicates a link with the Anglo-Saxons, as it is decorated in the Anglo-Art style. It is also inlaid with gold, which is more unusual in hordes from this period and in fact the Galloway Hoard as a whole contains more gold than any other surviving Viking-age horde found within the British Isles. The presence of this cross has raised questions about whether this is evidence of plunder – with the well-known association of Viking raids, or whether its presence and the Anglo-Saxon ties could indicate a much richer connection.

The remainder of the horde hidden beneath this decoy layer was itself split into three distinct groups. Firstly, there was more silver bullion, but in greater quantities than in the previous layer. It is also this bullion that offered the first indication that this might have been a different kind of horde. While this bullion did contain the same Hiberno-Scandinavian (Scandinavian interaction in Ireland, Isle of Man, Scotland and the Isles) broad band arm-rings as the decoy group, it also contained four distinct groups of arm-rings, with one of each being inscribed with runes. Here again, the horde proved surprising, as rather than Scandanavian Runes as might have been expected, these were Anglo-Saxon runes spelling out Old English words that are associated with names. This indicates that the horde had four owners, although the varying size of the arm-rings would also imply that ownership was not equal and would suggest a more corporate nature for the deposit. 

In 2019 research identified what is believed to be one of the owners of the hoard as Ecgbeorht / Egbert. The name was in Anglo-Saxon style runes, and Egbert itself is a common Anglo-Saxon name. It is hoped that further research, particularly dating of the hoard’s various components will allow researchers to identify possible individuals from the historical record and potentially learn more about Egbert.

Figure 5: Arm-ring containing the name now identified as Egbert (National Museums Scotland)

The second distinct group within the hoard itself was a further collection of silver arm-rings. These were not Hiberno-Scandinavian ones though, but rather what is known as ribbon arm rings (see below)– and unlike the ones elsewhere in the hoard, these had not been largely flattened. Instead, they were preserved as they would have been worn. Once again, there were four arm-rings present, with one larger than the others, and they were bound together in what might possibly have been symbolic of a contract. Within this were three gold items, which as previously mentioned are a lot less common in these hoards.

The third group or item is the most unusual aspect of the horde, and that was a silver-gilt vessel 10 cm wide and 10 cm high, with a matching lid (See below and You can view a 3D model of the vessel here) which contained a surprising amount of material. Firstly, it must be noted that all silver bullion was outwith this vessel, despite being the most common aspect of a Viking-age hoard. The vessel was also wrapped in and contained textiles, and while not all of it survived, the proximity to metal helped preserve more of this vulnerable organic material than is often seen – offering a greater opportunity for dating, as well as preservation of the items within. 

Figure 7: Silver Vessel wrapped in layers of textile (National Museum of Scotland)

As with the rest of the hoard, the vessel contained distinct groups of items. At the top of the vessel was a collection of glass beads and curios. These items, similar to the cross showed signs of being well-worn and aged prior,  and as the materials were not as intrinsically valuable as the rest of the hoard it would suggest that these were personal items or heirlooms. This group also contained a silver broach loop (pictured below) and was the only Hiberno-Scandinavian silver present within the vessel itself.

Beneath this layer, there were two major groups of items. The first is an unwrapped selection of Anglo-Saxon metalwork which again illustrated the unusual nature of this horde, as this was a first for Scotland, with the disc broaches typically being found further south in England. While the two face broaches (below right) are unique to this hoard, as are the hinged straps/ braid (below left). However, the straps are decorated in a similar way to the cross that was found within the decoy layer. 

The final group consisted of two complex bundles that contained organic and inorganic elements. The first bundle contained a Rock Crystal jar within a silk-lined leather pouch, and may have been a perfume jar; while the second bundle is a composite object of silken cord and gold fittings identified with X-ray and CT scanning and may possibly have been a belt or something similar.

Between these bundles were more gold objects – a pendant, a twisted rod and a gold ingot. The pendant (see below) does not contain a gemstone, but rather a schist. While it has been contained within a gold filigree case, research has identified streaks of precious metals on the stone itself which indicates that it was a Touchstone – a stone used within trade and/or metalworking to assess precious metals. While it has evidence of being used, and its casing includes gold clips that allow it to be removed, its inclusion here suggests that it is a relic or heirloom.

Beneath all these items carefully packed into the vessel, there were fragments of textiles, and yet another usual feature, as nestled and obviously packed with care were two Dirtballs (see below). Analysis has shown that these balls contain tiny particles of gold and shattered bone, which not only reinforces that they were artefacts in their own right and included with care, but it is believed that they may be contact relics brought back, pilgrims. Another dimension to the cross-cultural and multi-source nature of the Galloway Hoard.

Conclusion:

The Galloway Hoard is a fascinating and historic discovery that has surprised since its discovery in 2014 and offers the potential not just to learn more about the local context within Galloway itself, but also to place the area within the wider context of the Viking age. The identification of Egbert as one of the owners was a huge moment in the study of this hoard, but so many questions remain about the hoard – who were the other owners? Was this plunder, or something more meaningful? 

Future avenues for research at the moment, include dating the textile fragments found in the bottom of the vessel (organic material being excellent for radio-carbon dating) and also looking at whether these were standard materials or garments used for ease, or whether they were specially designed to protect items in the hoard, as well as research into the dye itself. Other research is looking at the source of some of the materials, including the Dirtballs (through soil analysis and isotope testing) to try and identify trade and travel routes, and establish where the items in the horde came from – again trying to place the horde and its history in the wider context.

‘The material in the Galloway Hoard is a striking testimony to the clash of worldviews and cultures which history knows as ‘The Viking Age’.

– The Galloway Hoard: Viking-age Treasure, Martin Goldberg and Mary Davis

The Galloway Hoard is now on display at Kirkcudbright Galleries from the 9th October 2021 – 10th July 2022, and will then be moving onto Aberdeen Art Gallery from the 30th July – 23rd October 2022.

Figure 12: Longship in Kirkcudbright (BBC News)

Even in 2021 the Vikings are still having an impact, as a rogue longboat knocked out the power supply in Kirkcudbright early last month, as it was moved to celebrate the arrival of the hoard at Kirkcudbright Galleries.

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