For generations, Viking storytellers regaled listeners with tales of vast treasure hoards guarded by fire-breathing dragons, but real treasure troves from the Viking world are relatively rare.
Today, however, researchers unveiled the contents of a spectacular Viking hoard discovered 18 months ago in Scotland’s Galloway region by a metal detectorist. The treasures range from silver armbands inscribed with runes, Anglo-Saxon silver brooches, gold jewelry, bits of ornamentally stitched silk, and even precious plant remains, all buried in a richly decorated metal vessel.
“It’s a strange and wonderful selection of objects,” says Olwyn Owen, an independent scholar and Viking specialist in Edinburgh. The Viking owners of the trove, she adds, “filled the vessel right to the top, and then they wrapped it in layers of textiles and put it in the ground.”
Medieval texts date the arrival of the Vikings in the British Isles to the 790s A.D., when fierce raiders from Scandinavia suddenly appeared along the coasts, plundering rich monasteries and terrorizing local communities. During the three centuries that followed, ambitious Viking chiefs and their followers arrived to conquer and colonize territories in England, Ireland, Wales, and Scotland, until they and their descendants were finally defeated or assimilated.
Archaeologists think that the Galloway hoard dates to the early 10th century, based on the style of the silver armbands and other objects in the trove. At the time, Viking forces had suffered a serious setback in Ireland, and local Galloway folklore “referred to a Viking army being defeated by a Scots army” at a Galloway locale, says Derek McLennan, the metal detectorist who discovered the hoard.
Intrigued by this lore and other evidence, McLennan decided to carefully search for Viking traces. On September 1, 2014, while he was out with small group of associates, McLennan found a silver arm ring with a Viking design, a large silver cross, and two other artifacts. He immediately called the authorities, who in turn swiftly dispatched archaeologist Andrew Nicholson of the Dumfries and Galloway Council to the scene. It was an unprecedented opportunity.
“Hoards are never dug up by archaeologists,” says Owen. Instead, most have been discovered “by accident during road building in the 19th century or just hauled out of the ground” by amateur diggers.
The controlled archaeological excavation revealed not one treasure trove, but two. In the upper layer, the team excavated a gold, bird-shaped pin as well as 67 silver ingots and arm rings, many produced by metalworkers in Ireland. This portable silver served as ready cash in the Viking world: the elite hacked off pieces to buy cattle or other commodities, reward loyal followers, or “pay off the troops” in Viking mercenary armies, says Nicholson.
Some three inches (eight centimeters) below that trove, Nicholson and his colleagues found a large, lidded metal vessel buried upside down, perhaps to keep out ground water. It turned out to be packed with treasures, many swathed in leather and fine textiles.
“Nothing was thrown in the vessel,” says Owen. The objects “were wrapped with great care and packed extremely tightly together, and they are such special objects that they were clearly enormously important to their Viking owner,” she adds.
Bad Day for Anglo-Saxons
One of the most important finds was the vessel itself. Highly decorated, the vessel was finely wrought from a silver-copper alloy by metalworkers in the medieval Carolingian empire, which stretched from France to Germany and which was ruled at one point by Charlemagne.
It “is a really very rare discovery,” says Colleen Batey, an archaeologist and Viking specialist at the University of Glasgow. Only six of these Carolingian vessels have ever been found, and many scholars think they were used during important ceremonies in the Catholic Church. It is possible that Viking raiders stole the Galloway vessel while plundering a wealthy monastery.
Inside the vessel, conservators found a stunning collection of medieval artifacts. Among the most striking are nine silver brooches, some richly ornamented. Most of this jewelry, says Owen, was made by highly skilled Anglo-Saxon metalworkers, and the objects would have been cherished by their owners. For the Vikings to obtain such a collection, says Owen, “some Anglo-Saxon monastery or settlement had a very bad day.”
The conservators also found many other precious objects—from a gold ingot to beads encased in silver, a highly decorated gold pendant that may once have held a saintly relic, and, most strangely of all, two large plant seeds or nuts. Botanists have yet to identify the species, but Owen suspects that the seeds come from an exotic plant that grew far from the Viking heartland. Whoever packed the vessel must have thought the seeds were “really special and worthy of going with all this extremely valuable gold and silver,” Owen says.
Even some of the cloth wrappings in the vessel were rarities. Textile experts at the Anglo-Saxon Laboratory in York, England, identified several samples as silk samite, a luxury fabric produced in weavers’ workshops in Byzantium, North Africa, or southern Spain. During the medieval era in Europe, this costly imported cloth was largely reserved for the high and mighty—kings and queens, high-ranking church officials, and saints buried in Christian churches.
Just how the hoard’s Viking owner came by all this treasure and why he or she decided to bury it in the ground, remain tantalizing questions. Research on the Galloway hoard is only beginning, says Owen, but she is convinced that all the archaeological data coming out of it will shed critical new light on Scotland’s Vikings.
“This hoard will add hugely to our understanding of Viking movements around the landscape, their interactions with other people, their craftsmanship, and to a huge range of other issues and themes,” she said.