Among the material packed into the silver-gilt vessel of the Galloway Hoard was a unique object of rock crystal and gold with a fascinating history – and an intriguing name on it.
The lower deposit of the Galloway Hoard included an unusual silver-gilt lidded vessel, packed to the brim with rare and often unique items. Its contents are part of a conservation and research programme to preserve and understand the precious organic textile wrapping and cords that survived in the vessel for over a thousand years.
One of the wrapped bundles from within the lidded vessel contained an object of rock crystal and gold. The wrapping itself was sumptuous: the object was first wrapped in linen, and placed in a pouch of fine leather, or suede. In between was a layer of samite, a luxurious decorated silk which must have come from Byzantium or Asia. The silk was precious in its own right, and appears to have been an inner lining for the pouch.
When the wrapped bundle was removed from the lidded vessel as part of the Treasure Trove process it was carefully recorded by AOC Archaeology using X-radiography. These were the first glimpses of the mysterious object underneath its wrappings: a carved rock crystal, mounted with an elaborate gold meshwork with what appeared to be a spout at the top.
In partnership with Dan O'Flynn in the Department of Scientific Research at the British Museum we conducted 3D X-radiography that allowed us to see inside the wrapped bundle without disturbing the fragile textiles. Over 1000 X-ray scans were taken from every possible angle and then stitched together to produce a three-dimensional digital model of the object within. This allowed us to examine the rock crystal object and its gold meshwork for the first time whilst still preserving the integrity of the fragile fabric wrapping. Better informed, we could then plan further work.
The 3D digital model confirmed that the rock crystal was drilled through the centre and aligned with the spout on top – it was definitely a small jar. There was also the tantalising glimpse of an inscription in gold on the base, at that point still hidden by the wrapping. Focus then turned to the carved rock crystal, already visible in profile through its wrappings. The unique shape of the carved rock crystal also revealed a much longer history.
Carved rock crystal is exceedingly rare in early medieval Britain and Ireland. Crystal of great clarity was difficult to find. The material is very hard and the expertise needed to carve rock crystal was not common in the ancient world. The workshops of Imperial Rome had the technology, but there was a lull until the later 10th century, when centres of production re-emerged in the Islamic Caliphate.
The gold-mounted rock crystal jar, after conservation. © Neil Hanna
The gold-mounted rock crystal jar with a hand for scale. © Neil Hanna
However, the Galloway Hoard was buried in the century before the rock crystal boom in Fatimid Egypt. The ends of the protruding lobes carved all around the surface are well-worn and with a material as hard as rock crystal it would take a long-time or a lot of wear to abrade away these leaf-like protrusions. This suggests that the origins of this carved rock crystal are likely to be much earlier.
The regular leaf-like protrusions around the carved surface of the rock crystal make most sense when viewed upside-down. They resemble the acanthus leaves from the top (capital) of a Corinthian column, a common form of Classical architecture. Wherever the surface is unworn we can see additional details carved into the crystal, such as leaf stems. Upside down, we can also see how the round top of the jar would have originally connected to a column below.
Indeed, one of the uses of carved rock crystal in the Roman Empire was for miniature, architecturally-inspired pieces. Rock crystal columns very similar in size to the Galloway Hoard object survive in the Vatican collections in Rome. One has been found in the early Christian catacomb of Domitilla. These small crystal columns come in a variety of forms – the Corinthian capital is unique to the Galloway Hoard rock crystal – but all of them have central drilled cavities, perhaps to hold the separate components of the column together.
The Galloway Hoard rock crystal seems to have been kept as a prized heirloom. At some point, several hundreds of years after its original manufacture, this column capital was turned upside down and repurposed as a gold-mounted jar with a spout aligned on the central drilled channel.
The goldwork on the jar is also unique. Numerous early medieval objects were decorated with filigree, a decorative technique using fine applied gold wire, but this one stands out as especially complex. Typically, Anglo-Saxon filigree makes use of beaded wire, which is absent here. Instead, the top of the vessel is ornamented in spirals of twisted wire and granulation (small balls of gold individually soldered onto the object). A plaited wire binds the top to the meshwork that wraps around the carved surface of the rock crystal. The baseplate is also decorated in a similar, but again distinct, filigree technique. The exceptional quality of the goldwork indicates this piece was from a very high-status workshop.
The channel which had been drilled through the centre of the rock crystal when it was part of a column was aligned with the gold spout at the top, so it was likely the jar was for a small amount of liquid. It is still not clear whether the gold base made the jar water-tight, and the translucent nature of the rock crystal also makes it possible that it could have contained a solid object. Whatever it held, it would have been a precious substance for a container this elaborate and for an heirloom as rare as the Roman carved column. Lavishly wrapped, the jar and its contents appear to have been treated like sacred relics.
The biggest surprise from the 3D X-radiography undertaken at the British Museum was that the gold baseplate appeared to have an inscribed message. Its letters were difficult to read at first. They were made from a similar kind of gold wire and gold granulation that was used for the ornament on the top of the jar. Upon closer examination, and now free of their textile wrapping, the message reads:
+ H Y G V A L D E P : F A C : I U S S
+ Bishop Hyguald ordered [this] to be made
[Reading confirmed by Elisabeth Okasha, University College Cork]
The identity of Bishop Hyguald is subject to ongoing research. There is no documented bishop by that name, though other Hygualds are attested in early medieval Northumbria, the kingdom which at this time included modern-day Galloway. The Durham Liber Vitae, a list of people associated with the monastic community of St Cuthbert, has several instances of the name, but none are identified as bishops. However, there are interruptions to the historical source material from the ninth century onward, so Hyguald is likely to be an otherwise unrecorded Northumbrian bishop from that time.
Further analysis of the object may yet reveal more clues as to where and when it was made, and what it was made for. But this much is already clear: like the silver arm-rings inscribed with Anglo-Saxon runes, a pendant made with an early 9th century Mercian coin, and the distinctive disc and quatrefoil brooches, the name of a Northumbrian bishop on this object ties the Galloway Hoard ever more into the Anglo-Saxon world. It is easy to forget that much of what is now in southern Scotland had been part of the Northumbrian kingdom for over two centuries by the time the Hoard was deposited.
Along with the pectoral cross found in the upper layer of the Hoard, it is clear that some of the objects were formerly property of the Christian Church. The careful wrapping of the rock crystal jar is a glimpse at how precious relics, as this may have been, were kept and transported in this time. It is also a testament to the wealth of the Church in what would become Galloway, even at the height of the Viking Age.
The rock crystal was carved in the Roman period, and it was mounted with gold for reuse as a jar in the 8th or 9th century
As part of the Galloway Hoard in September 2014
Rock crystal and gold
52mm tall, max width 46mm, baseplate 32mm square
Currently not on display
Did you know?
The inscription on the base reveals it was made for a Bishop Hyguald, an otherwise undocumented Northumbrian bishop
The acquisition of the Galloway Hoard was generously supported by National Heritage Memorial Fund, the Art Fund, the Scottish Government and hundreds of individual supporters. New research on the curation and hoarding of objects in early medieval Scotland as part of the Unwrapping the Galloway Hoard project is supported by the Arts and Humanities Research Council, grant ID AH/T012218/1, and the AHRC Capability for Collections Fund (CapCo) grant ID AH/V012185/1.