To understand the world of the Galloway Hoard, historical context and comparisons with other Viking-age hoards is essential. Find out what a hoard is, how historians and archaeologists have interpreted them, and why the Galloway Hoard is truly unique.
A hoard can be many things, often multiple objects of the same type or the same material, and usually precious metals. Hoards are most often thought of as buried collections of precious objects hidden for safekeeping, then lost or forgotten due to death or misfortune.
Viking-age hoards are particularly susceptible to this stereotype because the period is so often seen as endless raiding, looting, warfare and violence. There were many reasons for hoarding in the past, and many reasons why hoards might be preserved under the ground until the present day.
The interpretation of Viking-age hoards is still usually based on ideas of hiding wealth with the intention of later retrieval. But the Norse sagas contain examples where wealth was buried in the ground deliberately so that it could be accessed in the afterlife; treasures were also buried to seal an oath, or to claim land.
Many Viking-age hoards from Ireland are from in or near churches. These observations call into question our stereotypes about ‘Viking’ hoards, those who owned them and buried them, and the role of the Church in the silver economy in Viking-age Britain and Ireland.
Even in a Christian context, sanctuary could be sought at a religious centre for possessions, not just people, with vows exchanged and arrangements made regarding retrieval, donation and inheritance. Our modern expectations that hoards were either ‘economic’ or ‘ritual’ falls short of reality, and there was likely very little separation between spiritual and worldly value to the medieval mind.
During the 9th century connections had been established across the North Sea linking Scandinavia to Britain and Ireland, through warfare first and settlement later. The first impact on Scotland was probably in the Northern and Western Isles, but the earliest records are the fateful attacks on the monasteries at Lindisfarne (AD793) and Iona (AD795).
Chronicles and historical records were kept at these monasteries and so the source material is probably accurate, but not unbiased. These primary accounts of predatory attacks on ecclesiastical sites by savage heathens have permanently affected the public perception of this period – a stereotype difficult to get away from.
We often imagine ‘Vikings’ as a new people, but they were not of a single geographical origin other than broadly Scandinavian. They integrated very quickly into the politics and society of Britain and Ireland while maintaining contact with their home territories. The case of the Gall-Gàedil (Gaelic speaking foreigners) whose name survives in the region of ‘Galloway’ shows that existing languages, habits and customs were adopted by these newcomers.
Importantly, the Galloway Hoard is described as a 'Viking-age hoard', not a 'Viking hoard'. Going ‘a-viking’ was an activity or way of life. Through the 20th century the term 'Viking' has been misused as an ethnic identity for these Scandinavian colonisers as if they were a single people or a nation. This is a retrospective view that does not match the archaeological evidence. People at the time did not know they were living through a Viking Age and used several names for Norse-speakers – Northmen, heathens, Gaill (foreigners) – but almost never Vikings!
“Going ‘a-viking’ was an activity or way of life, not a period that was lived through. People at the time did not know they were living through the Viking Age and would not have known of a people called ‘the Vikings’- The Galloway Hoard: Viking-age Treasure, Martin Goldberg and Mary Davis
Historical sources are largely silent for Galloway. Formative events nearby, however, are well documented, not least the activities of the Great Heathen Army. This group arrived in England in AD865, probably from a bay in Frisia at the mouth of the River Scheldt. In 876 the army took York, and their winter camps in Lincolnshire are associated with the prototypes of the types of arm-ring found in the Galloway Hoard.
In AD878 an Anglo-Scandinavian kingdom of York was established under a Danish Prince, Gudfrid, who importantly had converted to Christianity and had the support of the Church of Saint Cuthbert. Ireland and Pictland were frequently plundered, with a thousand captives taken from Armagh in AD869, and Dumbarton Rock besieged and destroyed in AD870 with two hundred ships returning to Dublin laden with captives.
During the second half of the 9th century, dynasties of Scandinavian origin controlled territories on either side of the Irish Sea, with urban trading centres in Dublin and York. To the north, the Pictish kingdoms lost territory to Norse-speaking settlers, and the Gaelic Kingdom of Alba, which would become the medieval kingdom of Scotland, was first mentioned around AD900.
To the south, England was partitioned into an area of Danish rule (the so-called Danelaw), while Alfred of Wessex and his descendants worked to unite the remaining realms into what would become England.
Between these emerging kingdoms was a more politically ambiguous area that has few surviving historical sources. From Chester to Glasgow there were Brittonic-speaking communities of the west, and areas like Galloway were subject to the fluctuating power of the Anglo-Saxon kingdom of Northumbria. Galloway was also connected through its long coastline to the Irish Sea, and has considerable evidence for viking-age hoards, finds, and even a small number of ‘pagan’ burials with grave goods.
This is a pivotal time when the modern nations that now make up the United Kingdom are first appearing, but this is a retrospective view – the privilege of the historian. People at the time would have lived with the fear, uncertainty and danger of invasion, violence, and the threat of slavery brought by the changing social and political forces that historians study.
Yet, some also stood to benefit from these changes, creating new opportunities and forging new identities. Galloway seems to have stood between worlds longer than most parts of Scotland: in the eleventh century there is a ‘king of the Rinns’, and as late as the twelfth century the ‘earls’ of Galloway resisted the expansion of the kingdom of Scotland.
The Viking Age can also be thought of as a Silver Age because of the new sources of silver that became available through connections to Scandinavia, the Baltic Sea and beyond. This abundance of silver is demonstrated through the increase in burial of silver hoards, so characteristic of the archaeological record for this period.
The main sources of Viking-Age silver in Britain were coinage from the Anglo-Saxon and Carolingian kingdoms; and dirhams from the Islamic Caliphates of Central Asia. Tracing the origins of the silver objects in the earliest Viking Age is currently the subject of a European Research Council funded study by Jane Kershaw and Stephen Merkel at the University of Oxford.
A large proportion of the silver in the Galloway Hoard is incomplete and hacked-up objects (hacksilver), as is common in Viking-age hoards. When items in a hoard are broken it is a sign that these fragments were valued for their raw material, and were being gathered for recycling, to be melted down and made into new objects. The ‘broad-band’ arm-rings found amongst the simple silver bars (ingots) are typical of the Viking-age Irish Sea zone, and are found in hoards dated to a short window of time, c 880-930.
The Galloway Hoard also has old, worn and fragmentary objects whose material would not be suitable for recycling. They have been kept and curated, and in many instances carefully wrapped in silk, linen and leather, and buried within a special container: a lidded vessel that was also carefully wrapped. This immediately challenges some of the more common modern assumptions about value and the motivation for collecting and burying.
Anglo-Saxon metalwork and other unusual objects of glass, rock crystal and other stones, and even a pair of ‘dirt balls’, are not normally found in ‘Viking’ hoards and do not fit traditional concepts of Viking-age wealth. A string of well-worn glass beads looks like it may have been used for decades if not longer. Two remarkable pendants each contain much older material – a rock-crystal ball was maybe centuries old by the time it was mounted in silver, and a unique pendant made from a broken glass bead, held together by its silver frame, and set with a pierced coin of Coenwulf of Mercia (died 821).
Initial radiocarbon dating of fragments of the wool wrapping the silver vessel itself returned a date of AD 670-780, pre-dating the first viking raid at Lindisfarne in 793. There are objects in the vessel also wrapped in silk or leather pouches which were treated with some care themselves. We know that sacred objects like relics of the saints were wrapped in silk in the early medieval period, and it is possible the vessel contains objects venerated by their association with a saint’s shrine.
The Galloway ‘Hoard’ is therefore more than a single thing – there are hoards within hoards, and different parcels of silver may relate to the different names inscribed on the silver arm-rings. The vast array of materials – especially precious organic material – are only rarely found in hoards of this period, and will allow new questions to be asked that may change what we think about the Viking Age.
Over a hundred objects brought together over several centuries can tell us abut hundreds of ancient lives from over a thousand years ago. Men and women, makers and owners, traders and thieves, the pious and the profane – we may never know all their stories, but through further analysis we will know so much more about their world than we did before the Galloway Hoard was discovered. There is much still to be revealed, and we know enough now to expect the unexpected.
“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
See the new exhibition, Galloway Hoard: Viking Age Treasure, on display at the National Museum of Scotland in Edinburgh from 29 May - 12 September 2021. Free with museum entry.Book your museum visit