Secrets of Viking-age hoard revealed as it goes on public display

Experts have unlocked fascinating secrets of a Viking-age hoard discovered by a metal detectorist which is set to go on public display.

The 10th-century hoard of more than 100 objects, including gold, silver, jewellery, a rare Anglo-Saxon cross and textiles, was found in a field in Dumfries and Galloway in 2014 and acquired by National Museums Scotland (NMS) in 2017.

Painstaking cleaning, conservation and cutting-edge research over the past few years has revealed the stories of some of the objects, including a unique lidded vessel which is wrapped in textiles and is too fragile to form part of the display, however a 3D reconstruction of it will be on show.

3D models, taken from X-ray imaging, have enabled researchers to see beneath the textiles which have hidden it for more than 1,000 years, giving them a glimpse of the decorated surface of the vessel, which features leopards, tigers and a Zoroastrian fire altar.

Lidded vessel
A lidded vessel wrapped in textiles was among the objects found (Historic Environment Scotland/PA)

The decorations revealed that rather than being from the Carolingian (Holy Roman) Empire as expected, the metalwork is from Central Asia, while radiocarbon dating of the wool wrapping dates it to AD 680-780, predating the Viking age by up to 200 years.

Dr Martin Goldberg, principal curator of medieval archaeology and history at NMS, said: “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 suggests that it is a piece of Central Asian metalwork from halfway round the known world.

“What was revealed was decoration that is unlike the other two, they were made in a Christian context in the Carolingian empire probably sometime in the 9th century AD.

“Our vessel has non-Christian symbolism on it and in particular there is a central icon which is a Zoroastrian fire altar and Zoroastrianism was the state religion of the Sasanian empire, which is much further to the east in central Asia, what was Persia and is modern day Iran, and there are leopards and tigers in the vegetation on the vessel and the whole thing just has a much different symbolism.

“It was quite a surprise, it’s really opened up that international picture.”

Lidded vessel reconstruction
A 3D reconstruction of the lidded vessel will be on show (Andrew Milligan/PA)

Dr Chris Breward, director of NMS, described the hoard as “probably the most significant find from the period of the Vikings in Britain or Ireland that we know of”.

The exhibition, which opens on Saturday, shows how the hoard was buried in four distinct parcels – two of silver bullion and one a cluster of four elaborately-decorated silver “ribbon” arm-rings bound together and concealing a small wooden box containing three items of gold.

The final parcel was a lidded, silver gilt vessel wrapped in layers of textile and packed full of carefully wrapped objects that appear to have been curated like relics or heirlooms.

They include beads, pendants, brooches, bracelets, an elaborate belt-set, a rock crystal jar and other curios, often strung or wrapped with silk, as well as two mysterious balls of dirt containing tiny specks of gold.

It is not known why the hoard, which had items belonging to four owners, was buried, though they were typically hidden by people under threat or stress who hoped to reclaim them later.

Research into the hoard, found by metal detectorist Derek McLennan, continues through a £1 million project led by NMS in partnership with the University of Glasgow.

The exhibition Galloway Hoard: Viking-age Treasure will be open at NMS in Chambers Street, Edinburgh, until September 12 when it will then tour to Kirkcudbright Galleries and Aberdeen Art Gallery.