Curator's 'moments of revelation' during study of Galloway Hoard Viking treasures

The senior curator charged with unravelling the mysteries of the largest-ever Viking treasure collection found in the UK has spoken of the "moments of revelation” offered up by the stunning collection that was purchased for the Scottish nation for £2 million.

An elongated gold pendant from the Viking age Galloway Hoard which will feature in The Galloway Hoard: Viking-age Treasure exhibition at the National Museum of Scotland next February.
An elongated gold pendant from the Viking age Galloway Hoard which will feature in The Galloway Hoard: Viking-age Treasure exhibition at the National Museum of Scotland next February.

The Galloway Hoard of silver and gold was found in Dumfries and Galloway by a metal detectorist in 2017 and was hailed as “the richest collection of rare and unique Viking-age objects ever found in Britain or Ireland”.

The collection of more than 100 pieces was bought by National Museums Scotland (NMS) for £2m following a public fundraising appeal, with the treasures to go on show in February 2021 after the original exhibition date was cancelled due to the pandemic.

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Now Dr Martin Goldberg, senior curator in early medieval and Viking collections at NMS, has revealed new details about a number of objects in the hoard, which he said opened a “unique window into Viking-age Scotland’s relationship with Britain, Ireland and the wider world” .

The crystal rock jar which has caused a "conundrum" for curators. PIC: NMS/PA

In a blog for the NMS website, he said: “We always knew that the Galloway Hoard would be important for enhancing our understanding of Scotland’s international connections in the ninth-century AD, but some of the moments of revelation have been quite unexpected and taken us to unusual places.”

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Dr Goldberg recalled the “trepidation” of transporting the fragile pieces in the hoard to Edinburgh in early 2018 and said the collection was the “most intriguing” he could ever hope to work on.

A silver-gilt lidded vessel held a number of objects including a “mysterious” rock crystal jar, several gold jewels and pendants, and “two curious balls of dirt”, he added.

One of two mysterious dirt balls found in the bottom of the silver gilt vessel that hold a special secret. PIC: PA/NMS

The rock crystal jar decorated in elaborate gold-work was wrapped in a silk-lined, leather pouch with the item raising “many questions”, not least because such items were generally produced in the Islamic Caliphate up to 100 years after the hoard is thought to have been buried, around AD 900.

Dr Goldberg’s research led him to the Islamic Collection at the Met Museum in New York where he found a piece of jewellery similar to a black stone and gold pendant contained within the Galloway Hoard.

“Thus a new question arose – would the black-stone gold pendant in the Galloway Hoard turn out to be another piece of exotic, luxury metalwork, perhaps an import from the east?” he said.

At the British Museum in London, the two dirt balls found nestled within silks in the bottom of the vessel were subjected to 3D X-ray imaging.

Four annular silver ribbon bracelet arm rings from the Viking age Galloway Hoard, which will go on display next February at National Museum of Scotland. PIC: PA/NMS.

He described the results as “probably one of the biggest surprises for everyone” after it was shown the balls were laced with gold flecks.

Dr Goldberg said it could be the balls were formed by pilgrims collecting dust and mud that formed around Christian shrines.

It was then found the balls – which were formed “like a child would roll plasticine sausages” – contained two different types of gold, which opened up the possibility that the two objects came from different places.

Dr Goldberg said: “As we always suspected, each startling discovery about the Galloway Hoard sparks new questions about the people who created and collected these objects, and the world in which the Hoard was assembled.”

- Read Dr Goldberg’s original posts on the NMS blog here.

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