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A massive cache of Viking silver and Anglo-Saxon heirlooms reveals the complex political landscape of ninth-century Britain
By JASON URBANUS
Twenty-two pieces of silver bullion, including both raw ingots and flattened Viking arm rings, were discovered in the Galloway Hoard. Arm rings such as these, which are usually found in Ireland and date to between A.D. 880 and 930, were worn around the wrist and were also used as currency.
When it comes to Viking hoards, archaeologists know to expect the unexpected. Hundreds of these caches containing tens of thousands of objects that were hidden for safekeeping and never reunited with their erstwhile owners have been found buried beneath fields throughout Scandinavia and across Great Britain and Ireland. While many Viking hoards share similar characteristics—notably large quantities of silver—no two are identical. Thus, when a new trove is unearthed, what it might yield is endlessly unpredictable.
Almost from the very moment, it was discovered eight years ago in southwestern Scotland, in the region of Galloway, a particularly enigmatic collection of early medieval objects has evoked the sense of finding something truly unexpected. Discovered near Balmaghie, in the historical county of Kirkcudbrightshire, the assemblage, now known as the Galloway Hoard, dates to about A.D. 900. Numbering around 100 artifacts, it is the richest, most diverse, and most curious collection of Viking Age (ca. A.D. 793–1066) artifacts ever unearthed in Great Britain or Ireland. While it consists of no less than 10 pounds of Viking silver, it also boasts Anglo-Saxon jewelry, religious relics, precious heirlooms, and the largest collection of Viking Age gold objects found anywhere in the British Isles. These artifacts, which span the pagan and ecclesiastical and the Viking and Anglo-Saxon worlds, continue to astonish the researchers who are still trying to understand the hoard’s unprecedented elements. “Anything that you look at in this hoard has something unusual about it,” says Martin Goldberg, principal curator of medieval archaeology and history at National Museums Scotland. “There’s a whole range of things that we have never seen before.”
In 2014, an amateur metal detectorist surveying Church of Scotland land located a number of silver artifacts buried in a shallow pit. He notified local authorities, and an archaeological team was dispatched to the site, where they subsequently unearthed 22 ancient silver objects. The collection seemed to have all the markings of a Viking hoard. “The Vikings had an insatiable demand for silver,” says University of Oxford archaeologist Jane Kershaw. “They used it in lots of different ways—for display purposes, as a statement of wealth, and as currency.”
In the 400 years between the decline of the Roman presence in Britain and the Vikings’ arrival in the late eighth century A.D., silver had been relatively scarce on the island. But when the Scandinavians began to permanently settle in the British Isles and take over land formerly belonging to Anglo-Saxon kingdoms, they brought huge quantities of silver with them, often acquired through trade with the Islamic caliphates to the east. “New sources of silver were coming into Britain, which is why the Viking Age is sometimes referred to as the Silver Age,” says Goldberg. People often buried their silver at this unsettled time as a way of safeguarding their wealth, creating subterranean bank deposits that could be added to over time, or of hiding their valuables in the face of roving bands of dangerous raiders. Many of these stashes were never retrieved.
This article was originally published in Archaeology on May 2022.