Tuesday, 4 November 2014

The Dumfries and Galloway hoard: an archaeological context

In October this year a remarkable Viking hoard hit the headlines. It was discovered in Dumfries and Galloway (southwest Scotland) and contained both gold and silver items. To judge from the pictures posted by Treasure Trove Scotland, it’s a corker. Alongside familiar objects such as silver ingots and arm-rings, the hoard contained an Anglo-Saxon silver Christian cross with enamelled decoration, an Anglo-Saxon gold bird pin and, most spectacularly of all, a lidded Carolingian silver vessel filled with (as yet unexcavated) objects. Textile remains suggest the pot was originally wrapped in two layers of cloth. 

Some of the objects from the Dumfries and Galloway hoard. (© Treasure Trove Scotland)

The as yet unexcavated lidded Carolingian
silver cup, with textile remains
 (© Dumfries and Galloway Council)
My map of Viking-Age hoards (and single finds) from northwest England. Dumfries and Galloway is the territory at the top, hosting the compass. Red lines = Roman roads. Blue lines = Rivers (© Jane Kershaw)
The objects are stunning, and reveal the far-flung contacts and sources of wealth of Vikings operating in this area sometime around 900 AD. But is the hoard really so extraordinary? And what is its broader context?

Although it contains some stand-out objects, the Dumfries and Galloway hoard appears to fit into an established pattern of Viking hoarding in the lands surrounding the Irish Sea. Northwest England has produced a whole series of silver Viking hoards (17 at my last count) mainly dated to the first three decades of the tenth century. These include famous ‘historic’ hoards, such as that from Cuerdale, Lancashire, discovered in 1840, as well as recent discoveries, such as this hoard uncovered in Silverdale, Lancashire, in 2011. The distribution of the hoards (see below) shows that they are clustered around Morecombe Bay and, further south, around Chester.  The Dumfries and Galloway hoard is a more northerly findspot, but would still sit happily on this map.








































Many of the artefact types contained within the D and G hoard have parallels from the same area. These include silver ingots and the punched-decorated arm-rings, known in academic circles as ‘Hiberno-Scandinavian broad-band’ arm-rings (if you say it enough times it just rolls off the tongue!). These artefacts, forming the circle in the group picture above, were produced in Scandinavian Dublin, and are also found in hoards from Huxley (Cheshire) and Silverdale (Lancashire) among others.

In fact, the Carolingian vessel has precedent. Ninth-century silver Carolingian cups formed part of the Halton Moor (deposited in c. 1025) and Vale of York hoards (deposited c. 927-8) and look very similar to the new find. These cups were originally used as liturgical containers for bread, incense or consecrated oil and were likely seized during Viking raids on the Continent. They must have been heirlooms when buried in Britain. Neither of the two known cups has a lid, however: a unique feature of the Dumfries and Galloway vessel.

So why was so much silver concealed around the Irish Sea in the early tenth century? The Sea was a hub of Viking activity, connecting Scandinavian settlements in Dublin, the Isle of Man, the western coast of mainland Britain and York. And these were turbulent decades. Scandinavian elites had been exiled from Dublin in 902 and sought new lands in Cheshire and coastal Lancashire. At the same time, Anglo-Saxon rulers from the kingdoms of Mercia and Wessex looked to extend their authority into a power vacuum left by the earlier collapse of Northumbria. The, often violent, upheavals would have necessitated the safeguarding of wealth accumulated through raids or trade at York and Dublin.

Clearly, this hoard has much still to tell us, not least regarding the contents of the Carolingian cup. It's a very exciting addition to Britain's Viking hoards. 


5 comments:

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