The lidded vessel which contained the Galloway Hoard's most precious treasures is itself a revelation. For the first time in over a thousand years the detailed surface of the vessel has been brought to light by expert conservation and cutting-edge research.
The Galloway Hoard was discovered by a metal-detectorist in 2014 on what is now Church of Scotland land at Balmaghie in Kirkcudbrightshire, Dumfries and Galloway. A silver-gilt decorated vessel carefully wrapped in woollen textiles formed part of the discovery.
The lidded vessel that contained much of the Galloway Hoard's contents is itself a fascinating find, with complex symbolism and surprisingly distant origins. Uncover the story of the vessel so far, and of its contents, in this video. Thanks to Historic Environment Scotland for their contributions.
Some of the vessel's contents, such as two dirt-balls, appear mundane at first glance. Thanks to recent research, they have proven to be anything but. Everything within this vessel was valued for a variety of reasons based on where it came from, how old it was, and who had owned it previously. This uniquely composed collection would have been priceless to the person or people who brought it all together. The diverse origins of the vessel's contents complicate the stereotype of a 'Viking' hoard.
“Conservation work is allowing us to see these objects clearly for the first time . . . This exhibition offers a rare ‘snapshot’, the chance to see real archaeological work in progress, both what we have learned so far and the work still to be done.- Dr Martin Goldberg, Senior Curator Early Medieval and Viking Collections
3D scans make it possible to get an unprecedented look at the Galloway Hoard vessel's decorations. Give it a spin below, and see what details reveal themselves to you.
New 3D models, taken from X-ray imaging done at the British Museum and produced with the help of the Glasgow School of Art and Steven Dey of ThinkSee3D Ltd, have enabled researchers to see beneath the textiles for a privileged glimpse of the decorated surface of the vessel. This is a major revelation, allowing us as well as visitors to the exhibition to have a privileged glimpse of the vessel's decorated surface for the first time in over one thousand years.
The modelling, alongside dating analysis of the textiles, has revealed surprising new details about its age and origin. Radiocarbon dating of the wool wrapping the vessel dates the textile to between 680 and 780 AD. Not only is the vessel from beyond Europe; the wool wrapping it pre-dates the Viking Age, being one or two centuries old by the time the hoard was buried.
This is only the third silver-gilt and decorated vessel to be found as part of a Viking-age hoard in the UK, and so we might have expected it to be like the other two. However, the 3D-model reveals that the vessel is not from the Carolingian (Holy Roman) Empire of continental Europe as we’d expected based on other similar examples.
Instead, the decoration and design show leopards, tigers and Zoroastrian religious symbols, all of which suggest that it is a piece of Central Asian metalwork from halfway round the known world. Tigers and leopards often feature in hunting scenes on silverware from the Sasanian Empire (AD224-651). The central spine within each roundel is a Zoroastrian fire-altar, an important feature of Zoroastrianism and Sasanian imperial iconography also commonly found on their coinage. It is remarkable to find one of these eastern vessels so far to the west, thousands of miles from where it originated.
There are some important differences that make the Galloway Hoard vessel distinct from other Viking-age hoard vessels. Other vessels contained silver. Here the silver bullion was buried outside and the contents of this vessel are unlike any other Viking-age hoard.
This is also the only vessel used as a treasure container with a surviving lid. Most importantly, this vessel was carefully wrapped with evidence for three layers of textile. We are recording and preserving these rare survivals for the future and further investigation will explore how they were made, and whether they were coloured or embellished.
The lid sealing the vessel helped to create unusual conditions within for leather and textile preservation. These materials are of huge value to archaeologists because they rarely survive and, unlike gold or silver, they can be scientifically analysed using techniques such as radiocarbon dating.
Were they garments hastily grabbed from whatever was close at hand to stash this precious vessel? Or were they specially made covers for a lidded vessel that was only ever meant to be revealed to particular people at special moments? Many questions remain, and a three-year research project funded by the Arts and Humanities Research Council seeks to answer them. Meanwhile, the vessel's detailed surface can be seen for the first time during the Galloway Hoard: Viking-Age Treasure exhibition.
Not yet known. Possibly 6th century to 8th century AD. Buried circa AD900
2014 at Balmaghie, Dumfries and Galloway
Silver. The decoration on the vessel is chased (hammered from the front) and engraved in outline (inlaid with niello, a black silver sulphide paste). Key parts of the decoration are also gilded. The vessel was also wrapped in layers of textile when it was buried and these now cover the decorated surface
3D printed scale model in The Galloway Hoard: Viking-age Treasure, Level 3. Original vessel kept in controlled environmental stores to preserve the textiles for further research
Did you know?
The vessel's place of origin is not yet precisely known, but the evidence of the surface decoration that was revealed by the 3D model suggests that it was made beyond Europe, in Central Asia. This freshly revealed decoration is an area of ongoing research.