Meeting Report: Excavating the Galloway Viking Hoard

15 January 2016
Andrew Nicholson (Archaeologist, Dumfries and Galloway Council)

At a packed meeting on Friday, 15 January, over 100 members and guests of the Dumfries and Galloway Natural History and Antiquarian Society gathered to hear a lecture by Andrew Nicholson, Archaeologist, Dumfries and Galloway Council, entitled Excavating the Galloway Viking Hoard.

In September 2014, metal detectorists searching a field in Galloway found a small group of silver ingots and arm rings. Realising the potential significance of the discovery, they took the commendable action of alerting the Treasure Trove unit at the National Museum of Scotland, who then in turn contacted Dumfries and Galloway Council's Archaeology Service. Within three hours of the initial discovery, Andrew Nicholson was at the site.

In a series of record photographs, Andrew then proceeded to describe to an enrapt audience the sequence of events which followed, which by the end of the day had resulted in the excavation of the largest Viking hoard of metalwork found in Scotland since 1858.

First, the pit in which the hoard was buried was defined and the contents carefully photographed, recorded and removed. In all 22 silver arm rings and ingots were found together with a large Anglo-Saxon silver cross — the largest ever found in the UK. Evidence of leather around the metalwork suggested that all had been buried together in a leather bag or had been wrapped in leather parcels. A layer of clean gravel appeared to define the bottom of the pit, and that appeared to be the end of a remarkable discovery.

However, when a metal detector was swept over the pit for a final check, signals indicated that there was still more metal in the pit. What appeared to be a clean, natural gravel subsoil turned out to be a three inch thick 'false bottom' to the pit and an even more remarkable hoard was found below. There were in fact two hoards in one pit, possibly the upper hoard serving as a decoy for the more valuable lower hoard.

On removing the gravel layer the upturned base of a silver Carolingian pot became evident. To its side was another group of silver arm rings, five of which were found to have rune markings, which appeared to be personal names, perhaps of their owners. A second cluster of tightly bound arm rings contained a wooden object, possibly a box, a gold ingot and a finely-crafted gold pin in the form of a bird. The Carolingian pot and the two groups of arm rings appeared to have been each wrapped up and buried as three bundles. The pot had two clothes around it — one wrapping the body of the pot and the other wrapping its lid. Subsequent X-rays and CT scanning of the pot has revealed that it is full of objects, details of which will be announced later this year. Taken together the upper and lower hoards include 76 arm rings and ingots, the silver cross and the Carolingian pot with its contents. Further research will establish the date more exactly but early indications suggest a date around 900 AD.

Following the discovery, a 30 square metre archaeological excavation was carried out around the hoard pit, and evidence of a multi-period settlement site was found, probably including a Viking or Norse phase during the period of Norse settlement of Galloway from the mid-9th to 10th centuries AD. The excavation also found a further ingot and arm ring, which seem to have been disturbed from the upper hoard when the site was ploughed at some point in the past.

Andrew then placed the hoard into its historical context noting that it fitted into a pattern of hoards of similar type found around the Irish Sea zone, with finds in Ireland, Anglesey, Lancashire and inland to places along the main trade routes to York. It was distinct from other Viking hoards found in in North and Eastern Scotland, which are generally of later date.

There is still much research to be carried out and both the contents of the hoard and its historical context, and a very appreciative audience left the meeting looking forward to hearing a further update from Andrew in due course.