Discovered in 2014 near Balmaghie, Kirkcudbrightshire, the Galloway Hoard is the richest collection of rare and unique Viking-age objects ever found in Britain or Ireland. It had lain undisturbed since around 900AD. The treasure was acquired by the National Museum of Scotland in 2017, and this is the first opportunity to see the objects after cleaning and conservation and to find out what scholars have learned about them so far.
The show, spaciously arranged to encourage social distancing in an exhibition hall so dark it is almost theatrical, reveals the hoard gradually in the way it was discovered. The first find - a trove of Viking silver - was exciting, but not unusual. However, the deeper the archaeologists dug, the more remarkable the treasure which was revealed.
Even this top “decoy layer” contained a rare and ornate Anglo-Saxon cross. Beneath it lay more surprises: a further package of silver ingots and arm-rings, twice the size of the first; one of the largest collections of Anglo-Saxon metalwork preserved from the 9th century; four ornate arm-rings, which some believe suggest four-fold ownership; a selection of rare obects in gold and, finally, a lidded silver-gilt vessel in which a number of other precious objects had been placed.
The box itself is too fragile to display, with fragments of the cloth which once wrapped it still stuck to the outside, but CT scans and 3D X-rays have revealed decoration which suggests it came from central Asia. The objects placed inside it are as remarkable as they are perplexing: glass beads; a piece of rock crystal; a black stone held in an ornate case worked with gold filigree; lumps of dirt, carefully preserved and wrapped in cloth. Whether heirlooms, sacred relics or kept for another purpose, it is clear all these things were highly valued by those who buried them.
Who these people were remains a mystery, as does much about the society in which they lived. What is becoming clear, however, in this hoard of Viking silver and Anglo-Saxon metalwork, is that it was a complex society in which the different parties mingled and traded as well as fighting. Their connections to the larger world can still only be guessed at.
The exhibition poses as many questions as it answers, but the hoard is an archaeological work-in-progress, the subject of another three-year research project just beginning. Presented in this form, it begins to show us how objects don’t simply confirm our sense of the past but can challenge and even begin to rewrite what we thought we knew.
The Galloway Hoard: Viking Age Treasure, National Museum of Scotland, until 12th September. Free. Entrance to the museum currently by pre-booked ticket only. The exhibition will tour later this year to Kirkcudbright and Aberdeen.