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This week has been an exciting one for early medieval archaeology insofar that a highly significant find has been made public: ‘the Dumfries Hoard’. A massive hoard of Viking objects, already considered to be one of the most important finds from Viking Scotland, was discovered in Dumfriesshire back in September but details have only been announced just this week.

1Some of the objects under excavations (Photograph: Derek McLennan)

Whilst the size of the discovery is noteworthy – with over a hundred objects found together – what really evokes a sense of awe is the exotic character of the material. Objects from Ireland, Continental Europe and Scandinavia were brought together and deposited as a single event. People don’t just have a cache of expensive foreign objects lying about.

This bird hair decoration is made of gold and is exquisitely decorated. Just look at the intricate detail on the wing and head areas:

2(Photograph: Treasure Trove Unit)

And look at this silver-alloy Carolingian pot, complete with an intact lid. Experts are provisionally dating this piece to the eighth or ninth centuries:

3(Photograph: Treasure Trove Unit)

Perhaps one of the most telling artefacts is the solid silver cross enamelled with decoration of a rare form. Whether this object indicates  is representative of the spiritual beliefs of its owner or merely indicates artefactual exchange will be one of the more interesting research questions, no doubt:

4(Photograph: Treasure Trove Unit)

If you’ve read my recent publication in The Antiquaries Journal it might come as no surprise to hear that I am quite fascinated by hoards. They prompt so many interesting questions about the society and people that buried them. They likely functioned as the bank vaults of the day, offering a means in which one could deposits items of value in times of uncertainty. However, there must have also been an element of ritual involved, as the numerous finds of weaponry deposited in rivers and lakes across North-Western Europe indicate. Indeed, reconciling these various economic and social interpretations is an important agenda for future archaeological research.

As the Scottish Culture Secretary, Fiona Hyslop, put it:

It’s clear that these artefacts are of great value in themselves, but their greatest value will be in what they can contribute to our understanding of life in early medieval Scotland, and what they tell us about the interaction between the different peoples in these islands at that time. The Dumfries hoard opens a fascinating window on a formative period in the story of Scotland.”

I would certainly echo these thoughts. Just as the finding of the Staffordshire Hoard in 2009 caused early medievalists to intellectually (and perhaps physically) gyrate, this discovery will improve our understanding of the Viking World in a significant and crucial way. Hoards are quite rare in this period but evidence a particular and evocative snapshot in time. Was a Scandinavian chieftain fearful of losing his war booty, or was he, perhaps, interring the items as some sort of ritual? The answers will surely come in time, but the journey of discovery between then and now is, at least to me, the true beauty of archaeology.

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