The Galloway Hoard: Economics of the Early Middle Ages

The Galloway Hoard is more than just buried treasure. Discovered in 2014, this Viking-age deposit offers a glimpse of life during the Early Middle Ages, a century after the first Viking raids across Scotland. The collection contains more than 100 silver, gold, glass, rock crystal, stone, and earthen objects, most of which date to roughly 900AD.

Our modern stereotype of the Viking age is framed through the lenses of our Victorian ancestors, who added horns on Viking helmets (so that the audience could see them better in theatres) and romanticised their image as noble savages. The real history of the Viking raids is far more complex; Vikings often settled in the places they raided, integrating into local communities. The Hoard provides valuable evidence for the trade networks that flourished under Viking rule, demonstrating connections that reached far beyond Europe.

The Hoard was buried in two layers. Excavators first discovered a decoy layer, which contained a loose scattering of silver bullion. The most common object found was broad-band arm rings: rectangular in cross-section and typically found around the Irish Sea. Each ring features intricate designs and is unique, owing to the different decorative punches used. Other items include coins dating to AD 880-930, as well as an unusual Anglo-Saxon silver cross with Christian iconography.

Most of the arm rings found in the Hoard were of a standardised weight, multiples of a 26.6-gram unit. Our best evidence of this homogeneous weight system comes from Viking-age Dublin, where archaeologists discovered several 26.6g lead weights. This suggests that the rings were hammered out of carefully measured portions of portable silver ingots.

Furthermore, although ornate in design, the armbands were mostly never worn. They were hacked – divided into smaller pieces – demonstrating that they were valued solely for their bullion weight. The discovery of this standardised weight system strongly suggests that a common silver economy flourished along the Irish Sea. As a precious metal, silver was ideal for use as a currency because it was a store of value and provided a medium of exchange. Silver drove the economy and was exchanged as payment for services and goods through trade networks around the world.

Underneath this decoy layer was double the amount of silver, as well as a small wooden box containing three gold objects. This is a rare find: gold was much scarcer than silver in the Early Middle Ages. One of these was a small golden bird-pin, reminiscent of a flamingo (although not entirely realistic). In early Christian iconography, the flamingo was associated with the phoenix, owing to its ability to survive in the hottest climates. The phoenix was an important mythical bird as it symbolised Christ’s resurrection.

Judging by the runic inscriptions on some of the material, the objects seem to have been owned by four individuals. They appear to be of different status, as the share of bullion was not an equal split. Unexpectedly, these runic inscriptions use Anglo-Saxon rather than Scandinavian runes: perhaps this suggests that the owners were well integrated into Anglo-Saxon society.

Inside this layer was a lidded vessel, wrapped in bundles of organic material. Later chemical analysis shows that these were made of wool, linen, and silk. The wool has been radiocarbon dated to around 600AD, predating what is currently thought of as the Viking age by almost 100 years.

Archaeologists initially thought that the vessel was Carolingian in origin, assuming that it would have come from the Frankish kingdoms of Medieval Europe. However, X-rays revealed imprints of realistic leopards and tigers on the lid, suggesting that the vessel came come thousands of miles away from Central Asia. This hypothesis is corroborated by the fact that, as mentioned, the pot was wrapped in silk. Microscopic analysis of its weaving indicates that the silk originated from the Eastern Roman Empire or Imperial China, although researchers have not reached a definitive answer. More clues may yet come from further dye analysis and radiocarbon dating.   

The discovery of these Eastern objects in a Scottish Viking-age hoard hints at an advanced global trade network that expanded towards the Far East. Modern scholars hypothesise that the Viking expansion may have first proliferated eastwards into the Islamic Empire. There, the common currency in use was silver dirhams, which may help to explain the sudden influx of silver into Europe.

The vessel contained a pot of curios. One of the more typical finds were a collection of disc brooches and quatrefoil (cross-shaped) brooches; disc brooches are commonly found in Scotland, whereas quatrefoil brooches are usually associated with the Anglo-Saxon kingdoms of Southern and Eastern Britain. Amongst the objects were two dirt balls. These otherwise worthless items had deep sentimental significance with their owners. On closer inspection, the dirtball contained fragments of gold and bone contained within it. This is consistent with similar balls found in the Vatican collection: medieval Christians would often take balls of dirt from the places they visited on pilgrimage and then roll it in the dust of the holy shrines.

The pot also contained carved rock crystal, held in a gold cage. By the 9th century, the technology required to carve rock crystal was long forgotten, lost following the collapse of knowledge after the fall of the Western Roman Empire. It was not until a century had gone by that centres of production arose in the Islamic Empire. Perhaps then, this crystal was an heirloom of late Imperial Rome.

Once dismissed by academics as savages, the civilisations of the Early Middle Ages were in fact highly advanced, each integrated with a sophisticated trading relationship. Although most written records of the Early Middle Ages have been lost, archaeological findings such as the Galloway Hoard have allowed researchers to glean new information on the society, politics, and economics of the times. Our close-minded view of the Vikings may need to change. Their economic structures were advanced for their time, facilitating the beginnings of international trade. One might even say that they were the pioneers of our global age.

An exhibition of the Galloway Hoard is currently on display at Kirkcudbright Galleries, as of December 2021.  

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