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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.

What is a hoard?

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.

Dozens of objects laid on a round black table. Many strap-like arm-bands, finger-shaped metal ingots, disc and quatrefoil brooches, and two blue pillows cushioning the pectoral cross and arm-ring bundle.

Most, but not all, of the contents of the Galloway Hoard. The bulk of the hoard's contents is silver bullion, but there are also objects of widely different geographical origins, uses, and meanings.  

Pile of several dozen silver coins and various small silver fragments laid on a black surface.

The Storr Rock hoard found on the Isle of Skye dates from AD935 to 940 and includes objects from Ireland, Anglo-Saxon England, the Baltic and what is now Uzbekistan.

Interpreting Viking-Age hoards

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.

Silver cross with gold and niello designs at each terminus against a black background. A chord is wrapped around it.

Loot for later, a personal possession, a votive offering, or a protective amulet? The Late Anglo-Saxon pectoral cross from the top layer of the Galloway Hoard vessel.

The Viking Age in historical context

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!

Two images stitched together. On top is a rusted Viking sword, and separated by a white line is a quatrefoil brooch with four faces around a central nub.

Expectations and the more complex reality. A Viking sword found in Gorton, Moray, is the kind of object many people expect a Viking-age hoard to contain. Yet, there is no weaponry in the Galloway Hoard. Instead there are many decorative and practical objects, like this quatrefoil brooch.

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

Galloway: a crossroads of nations

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.

Scale model of a Norse longship. Yellow shields are slung over the ship's rim. Oars extend out at regular intervals, and a red flag flies from the lone, central mast.

1:16 scale model of the Norwegian Gokstad Ship of c.AD860. This type of vessel operated at the height of the Viking Age. 

Flattened silver arm-ring resembling a hollow axe-head against a black background. Thin runes are visible across its flat surface.

Flattened arm-ring bearing the Anglo-Saxon name Egbert, recovered from the site of the Galloway Hoard.

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.

Yellow-white antiquarian map of Galloway with many rivers and settlements marked. Details end at the region's boundaries.

1654 map of Gallovidia (Galloway) from Blaeu's Atlas of Scotland. (CC-BY) Reproduced with the permission of the National Library of Scotland.

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.

How does the Galloway Hoard stand out from other Viking-age hoards?

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.

Pile of over 20 silver flattened arm-rings and finger-shaped ingots laid out on a black surface. Some are plain, others have chevron, cross and zipper-like patterns.

Silver bullion from the Galloway Hoard in the form of flattened ‘broad-band’ arm-rings and ingots.

Map of Britain and Ireland. Water is white, land is grey. Black dots of varying sizes show Viking-Age hoard finds, with clusters in Galloway, near Manchester and throughout Ireland.
Hoards of arm-rings such as those in the Galloway Hoard are found in a trade zone centred on the Irish Sea. This map shows they are largely absent from the vicinity of Viking Dublin and are generally found away from the areas of Scandinavian settlement in Ireland. Map prepared by Dr Jane Kershaw, based on her data and data supplied by John Sheehan. 

Curating treasures, then and now

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.

Pear-shaped vessel tinted green over time. Eroded light brown textiles cling all over its surface.

The textile-wrapped vessel which contained many of the treasures of the Galloway Hoard. © Historic Environment Scotland. 

Arrangement of glass beads and crystal curios around a silver brooch disc against a dark grey background. Vivid greens and yellows.
Some of the Galloway Hoard's glass beads and curios assembled around a silver brooch-hoop. 

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

Galloway Hoard: Viking Age Treasure

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.

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