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Galloway Hoard contains previously unknown Christian relics

11 June 2021

Anglo-Saxon bishop or abbot may have buried artefacts

National Museums Scotland

3D digital model of the vessel from the Galloway Hoard

3D digital model of the vessel from the Galloway Hoard

ARCHAEOLOGISTS think that they have identified objects, in the Galloway Hoard, as previously unknown Christian relics buried at the end of the ninth century.

The Galloway Hoard was unearthed in south-west Scotland seven years ago. It is only over the past three-and-a-half years, however, that archaeologists and other scientists have been able to analyse most of the material; and it was only at the end of last month that their findings were announced.

The emerging evidence suggests to them that, although from the age of the Vikings, the hoard is probably Anglo-Saxon, and was possibly owned and buried by a senior bishop or abbot. Three items have been identified as possible Christian relics.

National Museums ScotlandBlackstone gold pendant case

The first two are two tiny scoops of earth and dust — containing microscopic fragments of gold, invisible to the naked eye. It is likely that they were formed by rolling earth in the dust near an important relic, possibly a gilded shrine. Other examples of “earth relics” are rare, but can be found in the Vatican, and an Irish-established abbey at Bobbio, 60 miles south of Milan.

It is known that those in the Vatican were brought back by pilgrims who had visited Bethlehem, the banks of the River Jordan, and the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem, between the seventh and ninth centuries — earth relics, therefore, from the places associated with Christ’s birth, baptism, and burial.

It is conceivable, then, that the two earth relics in the Scottish hoard may have similar origins.

The third item is thought to be a 5cm-long touchstone: an assayer’s tool, made of black schist, encased in gold filigree. The touchstone itself had no great intrinsic value, but the gold surrounding it suggests that it may, nevertheless, have had great spiritual significance. There are several saints who were artisans, goldsmiths, or silversmiths (including the seventh-century French saint Eligius); so it is conceivable that the black schist touchstone was associated with one of them.

National Museums Scotland“Earth relic”

At least three other items in the hoard are also thought to have had religious significance. The largest is a highly decorated 14cm-tall lidded container, made of gilded silver. It is conceivable that it was used to hold sacred oil or holy water, but it is the origin of the object which makes it unique in Britain.

Using 3D X-ray imaging techniques, the archaeologists have succeeded in revealing its iconography, and have concluded that it was almost certainly produced in the Middle East by Persian or Persian-influenced silversmiths during the sixth to eighth centuries. Decorated with Zoroastrian-style fire altars, winged crowns, leopards, and tigers, it is the first of its kind to be found in Britain.

The second related religious object is a rock-crystal jar with a pure gold spout, likely to have been either for dispensing holy oil or for water to be added to wine for consecration. The jar, inside a silk-lined leather pouch, was made from a fragment of a much older object: a rock-crystal column. The only known equivalent pieces of rock crystal are in the Vatican, and the only known origin are the Catacombs of Domitilla, used by Roman Christians between the second and fifth centuries.

The archaeologists have also found in the hoard a small rock-crystal sphere set in a cross-shaped silver mount. This may have been perceived either as a relic, or a talisman, or both. Crystal spheres had, since pre-Christian times, been regarded as protective charms.

Another item is of more obvious Christian significance: a silver cross, probably a pectoral cross for a bishop or abbot.

National Museums ScotlandPectoral cross

The detailed investigation, using X-rays, CT scans, microscopy, and molecular analysis, has revealed that the hoard consists mainly of two very different types of treasure: the specifically Christian material, and silver bullion.

The manner in which it was buried reflects the treasure’s split into secular and sacred components. The archaeological work at the site in the Glenkens area of Galloway shows that the hoard had been buried in two layers to deceive any Vikings or others who succeeded in locating it.

The upper layer, a sacrificial decoy, consisted mainly of silver bullion, plus the silver cross. Under a further eight centimetres of “natural” gravel, the original owners had hidden a much bigger lower layer of treasure, consisting of the sacred relics and the spectacular crystal and other religious objects, as well as more silver bullion.

The Galloway Hoard exhibition, which is supported by the UK-based global investment company Baillie Gifford, is on display at the National Museum of Scotland, in Edinburgh, until 12 September. It will then transfer to Kirkcudbright Galleries, Galloway (9 October-10 July 2022), and then to Aberdeen Art Gallery (30 July-23 October 2022).


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