30 April 2016

A Journey to the Far North in the Ninth Century

Actually, I disagree with the Medievalist's statement that Ohthere's voyages do not rank with the other great explorers of the middle ages, because anyone that sets out to sail 1000-miles north into the relative unknown certainly deserves recognition for what must have been a prodigious undertaking.

Ohthere - or Ottars - is prominently featured in Volume 1 of the Maritime Culture of the North, while another fellow, Wulfstan - Ulfstens - is featured in Volume 2 . Both men were inveterate explorers and traders, and are responsible for much of what we know of the medieval Baltic and White Seas, the coastal topography, and the tribes that inhabited this vast area of the north land.

Should you have an interest in such things I highly recommend the aforementioned volumes that I purchased at the Viking Ship Museum, Roskilde, Denmark in 2010. (Ed.)

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APRIL 3, 2016 BY MEDIEVALISTS.NET

The name Ohthere does not usually rank among the great explorers of the Middle Ages, such as Leif Erikson, Marco Polo and Christopher Columbus. However, his exploits are very impressive, for he would sail into Arctic Circle over eleven hundred years ago.

Detail of a map of Scandinavia, Russia and the White Sea, created by Abraham Ortelius in the 16th century
We only have one source that tells us about Ohthere and his journey – an Old English adaptation of a fifth-century work known as Seven Books of History Against the Pagans. The Anglo-Saxon version was produced in the court of King Alfred the Great at the end of the ninth century, and includes new material about the geography of Europe. This includes an account of a Norwegian merchant named Ohthere speaking with Alfred and relating his voyage of discovery.

Ohthere lived in a part of Norway called HÃ¥logaland and explained that no Norwegians inhabited the lands north of him.

The text explains:

“He said that once he wished to ascertain how far the land extended due north, or whether anyone lived to the north of the uninhabited land. So he went due north along the coast; he kept, for three days, the uninhabited land to starboard and the open to sea to port, all the way. Then he was as far north as the whalers go at their furthest. Then he went on – still due north – as far as he could sail in the next three days. Then the land curved away due east (or the sea entered the land – he did not know which of the two); he only knew that there he waited for a westerly wind with a touch of north in it; and he then sailed along the coast as far as he could sail in four days. There he had to wait for a due north wind because the land curved away there due south (or the sea entered the land – he did not know which of the two). Then he sailed thence south along the coast as far as he could in five days. There a great river went up into the land. Then they turned up into the river, because they dared not sail on past the river for fear of hostilities; because, on other side of the river, the land was thoroughly cultivated.”

It seems that Ohthere has described a voyage that took him along the entire northern coast of Scandinavia, past the Kola Peninsula before sailing south into the White Sea. It would be a journey of over 1,700 kilometres (or more than a thousand miles). The river he mentioned was likely was the Northern Dvina – if so Ohthere had reached what is now part of northern Russia.

Ohthere explained that the people living in this region were called the Beormas, and although at the time he did not go to meet, at some point he spoke with them:

The Beormas told him many tales, both of their own country, and also of the countries which were round about them; but, as to these, he did not known what was truth in them, because he had not seen for himself. It seemed to him that the Lapps and the Beormas spoke almost the same language.

We next learn more about Ohthere and his wealth, part of which came from hunting walruses, which were valuable for the tusks and skins. He also owned a herd of reindeer, over 600 in his herd, but most of his wealth came from tribute the Lapps (now known as the Sami people) paid to him:

The tribute consists of skins of animals, or birds’ down, of whalebone, and of the cables which are made of whale-hide and seal-skin. Everyone pays according to his rank. A man of the highest rank must pay fifteen martens’ skins, five reindeer hides, one bear-skin, ten measures of down, a kirtle made of bear- or otter-skin, and two ships’ cables (both to be sixty ells long, one made of whale-hide and the other of seal-skin).



Page from British Library MS Cotton Tiberius B.i, the Old English version of Orosius’ Seven Books of History Against the Pagans, early 11th century – it contains Ohthere’s account of his travels

Ohthere also offered King Alfred this description of the lands of Norway and Sweden:
“He said that the country of the Norwegians was very long and very narrow. All of it that can be grazed or ploughed lies by the sea; but even this very rocky in some places. And wild mountains lies to the east, parallel with and above the cultivated land. On these mountains dwell Lapps. And the cultivated land is widest in the south; and, always, the further north you go the narrower it becomes. In the south it may be sixty miles wide, or a little wider; in the middle, thirty or more; and, in the north where it was narrowest, he said that it might be three miles across to the mountains; after this the mountains are, in some places, as wide as can be traversed in a fortnight, and, in others, as wide as can be transversed in six days.

On the other side of the mountains, parallel to the south part of the country, there is Sweden; parallet to the north part, Cwena-land. The Cwenas sometimes makes attacks on the Norwegians across the mountains, at other times the Norwegians attack them. Throughout the mountains there are very large fresh-water lakes, and from there they attack the Norwegians; they have very small and light boats.

Besides his voyage over the north of Europe, Ohthere’s account also includes a trip to Hedeby, an important Viking-age trading settlement that now lies on the border of Germany and Denmark. His is one of the oldest accounts we have of medieval Scandinavia. You can read an English translation of his trip north in The Terfinnas of Beormas of Ohthere, by Alan S.C. Ross (Viking Society for Northern Research, 1981). You can also read this 19th-century English translation of the text.

16 April 2016

Celtic Buckle Found in Grave of Danish Viking

Here's another article about a find in Denmark. Like most such articles it is replete with archaeological suppositions, including the authors attempt to rename the methods for dating from BC and AD to CE, but if you can ignore those idiocies and opinions, the article itself is interesting. (Ed.)

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Celtic Buckle Found in Grave of Danish Viking
Posted By: David DeMar: March 22, 2016


A bronze buckle bearing the telltale signs of a Celtic provenance has been discovered in a Viking grave in western Denmark, sparking a wave of excitement in the archaeological community.
The six-centimeter gilt buckle, which had once been used as a clasp on a petticoat, dates to somewhere between 900 to 1,000 years in the past and was buried with its female owner. The find is a rare one, as the workmanship and design of the artifact was common to contemporary Irish or Scottish bronze working.

Ernst Stidsing, the Museum of East Jutland archaeologist that spearheaded the project, said in an interview with ScienceNordic News that he had never seen anything like the circular buckle before. After documenting his find, he sent several photographs to Else Resdahl, Professor Emeritus of Denmark’s Aarhus University – only to discover that his colleague had never seen anything like it before either. The quest to identify the artifact intensified, with several other colleagues collaborating to narrow down the origins of the buckle to the British Isles based on its design and its ornamentation.

Additionally, the researchers involved in the study of the disc unanimously agreed that it had not begun life as a petticoat buckle; instead it was likely pried off a religious wooden box and then stolen in a Viking raid. Stidsing pointed out that such objects simply weren’t traded, meaning that some church or monastery – possibly a pre-Christian one – was looted through good old-fashioned plunder.

The bronze ornament itself has been dated to approximately 800 CE; the grave, in comparison, is about a century younger.

There’s no way to determine how this particular piece of Viking plunder made it to western Denmark. However, Stidsing theorizes that it might have first arrived on Norwegian shores, based on a few uncommon examples of similar buckles within the country. A woman from Norway could have traveled to Denmark and lived there until her death, the archaeologist suggested. In order to test his theory, the teeth of the deceased buckle owner are being subjected to strontium isotope analysis; this could help to pinpoint her geographical region of origin. With Norwegian Vikings being notorious for raiding parties sent to regions of England such as Northumberland and even farther afield, it’s a distinct possibility that Stidsing will turn out to be correct.

Museum Southeast Denmark curator and fellow archaeologist Jens Ulriksen, also interviewed by ScienceNordic, agreed that such belt buckles are exceedingly rare when it comes to being found in Denmark. Ulriksen was excited by the prospect of discovering evidence of the woman being originally from Norway or from even greater distances before settling in western Denmark, adding that there’s a historical precedent: Slavic princesses, for example, were routinely married off to Danish kings from 900 CE. The archaeologist added that he wouldn’t be surprised if there was such a cultural exchange, but having it confirmed would be invaluable – especially if it led to the confirmation of dynastic connections across Scandinavia. Additionally, being able to confirm the origins of the woman as Norwegian could aid researchers in understanding the extent of Viking mobility during the medieval era.

The research study associated with the new archaeological find has been published by the University of Copenhagen’s Saxo Institute.
Images of the artefact can be found here


09 April 2016

Discovery Could Rewrite History of Vikings in New World

I am so excited about the article that I feature on my blog this week, that I am barely able to contain myself. I selected this article from National Geographic to present to you, because it has the most comprehensive coverage. Media is abuzz with this news.

Discovered by using satellite imagery and an on site visit, the area has been confirmed as man made. Located on the southwest tip of Newfoundland Island, Canada, overlooking the Gulf of St. Lawrence it may prove to be medieval Viking (Norse) in nature. They are cautiously optimistic that it is exactly that.

This stupendous archaeological discovery could be either Hop or Straumfjord; the other two settlements of the medieval Norse alluded to in the Norse sagas that have not previously been discovered.

I have been playing to a small, select group of believers for the past 12-years in my Axe of Iron series of novels about the Greenland Norse people. I have long contended, most of my life actually, that these people did not simply disappear, they began to assimilate with the pre-historical natives of Canada from the very beginning of their first contact with them. If this site is Norse, my contentions may be vindicated one day.

Any conclusion as to origin would be premature at this point, but please take a moment to read this great article. You will get in on the ground floor of what might be the third most important, if not the most important, find after L'Anse aux Meadows and the Tanfield site on Baffin Island.

According to the latest news, an expedition will spend this summer working at the site to make positive identification insofar as origin is concerned. My fingers are crossed. (Ed.)

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Discovery Could Rewrite History of Vikings in New World

Guided by ancient Norse sagas and modern satellite images, searchers discover what may be North America's second Viking site.

Archaeologists have unearthed a stone hearth that was used for iron-working, hundreds of miles away from the only other known Viking site in North America.
PHOTOGRAPH BY ROBERT CLARK, NATIONAL GEOGRAPHIC

By Mark Strauss
PUBLISHED THU MAR 31 18:30:00 EDT 2016
POINT ROSEE, CANADA

It’s a two-mile trudge through forested, swampy ground to reach Point Rosee, a narrow, windswept peninsula stretching from southern Newfoundland into the Gulf of St. Lawrence. Last June, a team of archaeologists was drawn to this remote part of Canada by a modern-day treasure map: satellite imagery revealing ground features that could be evidence of past human activity.

The treasure they discovered here—a stone hearth used for working iron—could rewrite the early history of North America and aid the search for lost Viking settlements described in Norse sagas centuries ago.

To date, the only confirmed Viking site in the New World is L’Anse aux Meadows, a thousand-year-old way station discovered in 1960 on the northern tip of Newfoundland. It was a temporary settlement, abandoned after just a few years, and archaeologists have spent the past half-century searching for elusive signs of other Norse expeditions.

“The sagas suggest a short period of activity and a very brief and failed colonization attempt,” says Douglas Bolender, an archaeologist specializing in Norse settlements. “L’Anse aux Meadows fits well with that story but is only one site. Point Rosee could reinforce that story or completely change it if the dating is different from L’Anse aux Meadows. We could end up with a much longer period of Norse activity in the New World.”



The site of the discovery, hundreds of miles south of L’Anse aux Meadows, was located by archaeologist Sarah Parcak, a National Geographic Fellow and “space archaeologist” who has used satellite imagery to locate lost Egyptian cities, temples, and tombs.

Last November, TED awarded Parcak a $1 million prize to develop a project to discover and monitor ancient sites. This latest discovery in Newfoundland—supported, in part, by a grant from the National Geographic Society—demonstrates that her space-based surveillance can not only spy out artifacts in barren desert landscapes, but also in regions covered by tall grasses and other plant life.

Parcak led a team of archaeologists to Point Rosee last summer to conduct a “test excavation,” a small-scale dig to search for initial evidence that the site merits further study. The scientists unearthed an iron-working hearth partially surrounded by the remains of what appears to have been a turf wall.

The archaeologists don’t yet have enough evidence to confirm that Vikings built the hearth. Other peoples lived in Newfoundland centuries ago, including Native Americans and Basque fisherman. 

But experts are cautiously optimistic.
“A site like Point Rosee has the potential to reveal what that initial wave of Norse colonization looked like not only for Newfoundland but for the rest of the North Atlantic,” says Bolender.

Sarah Parcak, a "space archaeologist," has used satellite imagery to locate lost Egyptian cities, temples, and tombs. And now, her eyes in the sky are searching for Viking settlements in Canada.
PHOTOGRAPH BY ROBERT CLARK, NATIONAL GEOGRAPHIC

Location, Location, Location
“Who’s your daddy?!?” Parcak shouts at the ground as her muddy boot pushes down on a shovel, cutting its way through thick turf to the soil beneath. It’s a joyous sound, the primal yell of an archaeologist in her natural habitat, doing fieldwork. “Digging makes us better people,” she tells me.
Parcak is far afield of her usual stomping grounds in Egypt. But this project has clearly captivated her imagination, drawing her into Viking history and lore.

One afternoon, we cautiously make our way down a steep path—created by a small landslide and gully—to a narrow beach. As we stroll along the shoreline, Parcak speculates on why this tiny peninsula would have made an ideal Norse outpost.

“They were quite nervous about their safety, threats by locals,” she says. “They needed to be in a place where they could have good access to the beaches but also a good vantage point. This spot is ideally situated—you can see to the north, west, and south.”

After studying the area and researching prior land surveys, the archaeologists have identified other characteristics that would have made Point Rosee an optimum site for Norse settlers: The southern coastline of the peninsula has relatively few submerged rocks, allowing for anchoring or even beaching ships; the climate and soil in the region is especially well-suited for growing crops; there’s ample fishing on the coast and game animals inland; and there are lots of useful natural resources, such as chert for making stone tools and turf for building housing.

Iron Men
And then, of course, there was the most valuable resource of all: bog iron. It’s a type of ore that forms when rivers carry dissolved particles of iron down from mountains and into wetlands, where bacteria leach the iron from the water, leaving behind metal deposits.

The Norse didn’t do much mining. Most of their iron was harvested from peat bogs, and their very way of life depended upon it. Metal nails held their ships together as they sailed west—expanding their realm across the North Atlantic—and south, establishing trade routes throughout Europe and the Far East. A modern-day reconstruction of a Norse longship, built by the Viking Ship Museum in Denmark, required 7,000 nails made from 880 pounds (400 kg) of iron—which means that a blacksmith would have had to heat and process 30 tons of raw bog iron ore.

Bog iron prospectors knew what telltale signs to look for, such as an oily looking microbial slick on the surface of stagnant water. In fact, three historians authored a study making the case that iron was a prerequisite for Viking settlements. L’Anse aux Meadows, they observe, was a site used for iron production and ship maintenance, providing evidence “that the explorers, knowing their ships needed repair, actively sought out a location where they could acquire bog iron and produce new nails.”

Searching For Signs
Up until now, Parcak has predominantly used her eyes in the sky to gaze upon Egypt, where she has been able to spot geological anomalies that indicate the presence of ruins beneath the barren, mostly undisturbed sands.

A satellite image of Point Rosee used by archaeologist Sarah Parcak in her search for Viking settlements. Dark straight lines indicate the remains of possible structures.
SATELLITE IMAGE BY DIGITALGLOBE

But, whereas the ancient Egyptians left behind stone edifices that have endured for thousands of years, Viking structures were hewn mostly from wood and earth. So when Parcak uses satellite imagery to search for signs of Norse settlers, she’s not looking for actual ruins. Instead, she’s scrutinizing the plant life.

The remnants of structures buried at Point Rosee alter the surrounding soil, changing the amount of moisture it retains. This, in turn, affects the vegetation growing directly over it. Using remote sensing, variations in plant growth form a spectral outline of what was there centuries earlier. The Point Rosee images were taken during the fall, when the grasses in the area were particularly high, making it easier to see which plants were healthier, drinking more water from the soil.

In one area, a magnetometer survey reveals a hot spot that, according to the satellite imagery, is partially surrounded by straight lines indicating the possible ruins of a small structure. Excavation reveals the remains of what appear to be turf walls and an iron-working hearth.
To an untrained eye, the hearth doesn’t look like much: a boulder in front of a shallow pit, surrounded by smaller stones. But traces of charcoal and 28 pounds of slag found in the pit suggest to the archaeologists that this hearth was used for roasting ore.

The archaeologists found 28 pounds of slag in a hearth that they believe was used to roast iron ore prior to smelting it in a furnace.
PHOTOGRAPH BY ROBERT CLARK, NATIONAL GEOGRAPHIC

This was the first step in the iron-working process. Before the metal could be smelted and forged by a blacksmith, the ore needed to be dried out—otherwise, it would explode when placed inside a furnace. The roasting process also removed some of the impurities, in the form of discarded metal slag.

The discovery of this hearth makes Point Rosee the southernmost and westernmost known iron-working site in pre-Columbian North America.

The Stuff of Legends
Was Point Rosee a Viking outpost a thousand or so years ago? The evidence thus far is promising. 

The turf structure that partially surrounds the hearth is nothing like the shelters built by indigenous peoples who lived in Newfoundland at the time, nor by Basque fishermen and whalers who arrived in the 16th century. And, while iron slag may be fairly generic, “there aren’t any known cultures—prehistoric or modern—that would have been mining and roasting bog iron ore in Newfoundland other than the Norse,” says Bolender.

Very few artifacts have been found at Point Rosee, but that’s actually a good sign. Most Norse possessions haven’t preserved well; they were typically made from wood, which decayed, or iron, which either decayed or was melted down to make something else. Archaeologists conducted seven excavations at L’Anse aux Meadows, from 1961 to 1968, before they had sufficient evidence to confirm it was a Norse outpost. And even then they found only a handful of personal items, such as a bronze pin, a needle hone, and a stone lamp. If the archaeologists had found many artifacts at Point Rosee, then it probably wouldn’t be a Viking site.


Archaeologists conducted a "test excavation" in Newfoundland—a small-scale dig to search for initial evidence that the site merits further study. They were successful.
PHOTOGRAPH BY ROBERT CLARK, NATIONAL GEOGRAPHIC

One theory is that Point Rosee was primarily an iron-working camp, a temporary facility supporting exploration and exploitation of resources within the Gulf of St. Lawrence. Bolender, however, believes it might have been part of a more substantial settlement somewhere in the vicinity.
If so, then how does this discovery fit into history’s bigger picture?

Much of what we know about the Norse exploration of North America is gleaned from the Viking sagas, oral stories passed down across generations that were eventually transcribed.
“We’re looking here because of the sagas,” says Bolender. “Nobody would have ever found L’Anse aux Meadows if it weren’t for the sagas. But, the flipside is that we have no idea how reliable they are.”

Archaeologists have found sporadic evidence suggestive of Viking explorers who traveled beyond their settlements in Greenland. Artifacts from the 11th century, including a copper coin, were discovered in Maine, possibly obtained by Native Americans who traded with the Norse. Canadian archaeologist Patricia Sutherland has found ruins on Baffin Island, far above the Arctic Circle, which she claims were a trading outpost—though the evidence remains inconclusive. (Read about Sutherland’s discovery.)

The confirmed discovery of a Norse camp at L’Anse aux Meadows proved that the Viking sagas weren’t entirely fiction. A second settlement at Point Rosee would suggest that the Norse exploration of the region wasn’t a limited undertaking, and that archaeologists should expand their search for evidence of other settlements, built 500 years before the arrival of Christopher Columbus.

“For a long time, serious North Atlantic archaeologists have largely ignored the idea of looking for Norse sites in coastal Canada because there was no real method for doing so,” says Bolender. “If Sarah Parcak can find one Norse site using satellites, then there’s a reasonable chance that you can use the same method to find more, if they exist. If Point Rosee is Norse, it may open up coastal Canada to a whole new era of research.”


02 April 2016

Pictures: An Elite Viking’s Prized Possessions

This from National Geographic: whomever labelled the photo of this magnificent pendant, or whatever it really is, seized on the flight of fantasy that the object may contain a saintly relic. Really? Why would the author of the photo caption make that statement? Because, they are Christian and naturally assume that the person that buried this object 1000-years ago just had to be a Christian, too? What drivel. 

Nobody knows where this object came from, and they never will. For an archaeologist - a discipline given to proselytizing if there ever was one - to say it might contain a saintly object is a real stretch, an opinion only, no doubt.

Even given the proselytizing - those in archaeology can't seem to help themselves - it is an interesting article about an important discovery of medieval Viking artifacts. (Ed.)


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Pictures: An Elite Viking’s Prized Possessions


Buried for more than a thousand years, Scotland's “Galloway hoard” may include rare artifacts looted from medieval monasteries.


Still shrouded in bits of protective cloth, a gold pendant may once have contained a saintly relic.  
PHOTOGRAPH BY ROBERT CLARK, NATIONAL GEOGRAPHIC WITH PERMISSION OF HISTORIC ENVIRONMENT SCOTLAND

By Heather Pringle
PUBLISHED WED MAR 23 20:15:10 EDT 2016

For generations, Viking storytellers regaled listeners with tales of vast treasure hoards guarded by fire-breathing dragons, but real treasure troves from the Viking world are relatively rare.

Today, however, researchers unveiled the contents of a spectacular Viking hoard discovered 18 months ago in Scotland’s Galloway region by a metal detectorist. The treasures range from silver armbands inscribed with runes, Anglo-Saxon silver brooches, gold jewelry, bits of ornamentally stitched silk, and even precious plant remains, all buried in a richly decorated metal vessel.
“It’s a strange and wonderful selection of objects,” says Olwyn Owen, an independent scholar and Viking specialist in Edinburgh. The Viking owners of the trove, she adds, “filled the vessel right to the top, and then they wrapped it in layers of textiles and put it in the ground.”

All symmetry and curving lines, the hoard’s sole penannular brooch was crafted in Scotland or Ireland for a high-status man or woman.

PHOTOGRAPH BY ROBERT CLARK, NATIONAL GEOGRAPHIC WITH PERMISSION OF HISTORIC ENVIRONMENT SCOTLAND
Medieval texts date the arrival of the Vikings in the British Isles to the 790s A.D., when fierce raiders from Scandinavia suddenly appeared along the coasts, plundering rich monasteries and terrorizing local communities. During the three centuries that followed, ambitious Viking chiefs and their followers arrived to conquer and colonize territories in England, Ireland, Wales, and Scotland, until they and their descendants were finally defeated or assimilated.

Archaeologists think that the Galloway hoard dates to the early 10th century, based on the style of the silver armbands and other objects in the trove. At the time, Viking forces had suffered a serious setback in Ireland, and local Galloway folklore “referred to a Viking army being defeated by a Scots army” at a Galloway locale, says Derek McLennan, the metal detectorist who discovered the hoard.
Intrigued by this lore and other evidence, McLennan decided to carefully search for Viking traces. On September 1, 2014, while he was out with small group of associates, McLennan found a silver arm ring with a Viking design, a large silver cross, and two other artifacts. He immediately called the authorities, who in turn swiftly dispatched archaeologist Andrew Nicholson of the Dumfries and Galloway Council to the scene. It was an unprecedented opportunity.

“Hoards are never dug up by archaeologists,” says Owen. Instead, most have been discovered “by accident during road building in the 19th century or just hauled out of the ground” by amateur diggers.

One of the rarest objects in the hoard was this finely wrought Carolingian vessel.  Still encrusted with pieces of textile,  the vessel was jam-packed with brooches and other medieval treasures.
PHOTOGRAPH COURTESY HISTORIC ENVIRONMENT SCOTLAND

The controlled archaeological excavation revealed not one treasure trove, but two. In the upper layer, the team excavated a gold, bird-shaped pin as well as 67 silver ingots and arm rings, many produced by metalworkers in Ireland. This portable silver served as ready cash in the Viking world: the elite hacked off pieces to buy cattle or other commodities, reward loyal followers, or “pay off the troops” in Viking mercenary armies, says Nicholson.

Some three inches (eight centimeters) below that trove, Nicholson and his colleagues found a large, lidded metal vessel buried upside down, perhaps to keep out ground water. It turned out to be packed with treasures, many swathed in leather and fine textiles.
“Nothing was thrown in the vessel,” says Owen.  The objects “were wrapped with great care and packed extremely tightly together, and they are such special objects that they were clearly enormously important to their Viking owner,” she adds.

Bad Day for Anglo-Saxons

One of the most important finds was the vessel itself.  Highly decorated, the vessel was finely wrought from a silver-copper alloy by metalworkers in the medieval Carolingian empire, which stretched from France to Germany and which was ruled at one point by Charlemagne.


It “is a really very rare discovery,” says Colleen Batey, an archaeologist and Viking specialist at the University of Glasgow. Only six of these Carolingian vessels have ever been found, and many scholars think they were used during important ceremonies in the Catholic Church. It is possible that Viking raiders stole the Galloway vessel while plundering a wealthy monastery.
Inside the vessel, conservators found a stunning collection of medieval artifacts. Among the most striking are nine silver brooches, some richly ornamented. Most of this jewelry, says Owen, was made by highly skilled Anglo-Saxon metalworkers, and the objects would have been cherished by their owners. For the Vikings to obtain such a collection, says Owen, “some Anglo-Saxon monastery or settlement had a very bad day.”

The conservators also found many other precious objects—from a gold ingot to beads encased in silver, a highly decorated gold pendant that may once have held a saintly relic, and, most strangely of all, two large plant seeds or nuts.  Botanists have yet to identify the species, but Owen suspects that the seeds come from an exotic plant that grew far from the Viking heartland. Whoever packed the vessel must have thought the seeds were “really special and worthy of going with all this extremely valuable gold and silver,” Owen says.

These two arm rings, inscribed with ancient runes, came from the upper layer of the hoard. 
PHOTOGRAPH BY ROBERT CLARK, NATIONAL GEOGRAPHIC WITH PERMISSION OF HISTORIC ENVIRONMENT SCOTLAND

Even some of the cloth wrappings in the vessel were rarities. Textile experts at the Anglo-Saxon Laboratory in York, England, identified several samples as silk samite, a luxury fabric produced in weavers’ workshops in Byzantium, North Africa, or southern Spain. During the medieval era in Europe, this costly imported cloth was largely reserved for the high and mighty—kings and queens, high-ranking church officials, and saints buried in Christian churches.

Just how the hoard’s Viking owner came by all this treasure and why he or she decided to bury it in the ground, remain tantalizing questions. Research on the Galloway hoard is only beginning, says Owen, but she is convinced that all the archaeological data coming out of it will shed critical new light on Scotland’s Vikings.

“This hoard will add hugely to our understanding of Viking movements around the landscape, their interactions with other people, their craftsmanship, and to a huge range of other issues and themes,” she said.