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After more than a thousand years, this medieval cross gleams again

In 2014, a metal detectorist named Derek McLennan discovered perhaps the most significant Viking Age treasure hoard in Scotland. Now, one of its most significant pieces of the Galloway Hoard has been restored to its former glory.

National Museums Scotland has released new images of the Galloway Cross revealing the work they have done to clean and restore the item, which dates back to the late ninth century. It will soon be on display at the National Museum of Scotland as part of an exhibition of the Galloway Hoard.

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The silver cross is decorated in Late Anglo-Saxon style using black niello and gold-leaf. In each of the four arms of the cross are the symbols of the four evangelists who wrote the Gospels of the New Testament, Saint Matthew, Mark (Lion), Luke (Cow) and John (Eagle). It was buried around the end of the ninth century in the county of Kirkcudbrightshire in Dumfries and Galloway.

The silver pectoral cross pre-conservation. Photo courtesy National Museums Scotland

“The pectoral cross, with its subtle decoration of evangelist symbols and foliage, glittering gold and black inlays, and its delicately coiled chain, is an outstanding example of the Anglo-Saxon goldsmith’s art,” comments Dr Leslie Webster, former Keeper of Britain, Prehistory and Europe at the British Museum. “It was made in Northumbria in the later ninth century for a high-ranking cleric, as the distinctive form of the cross suggests. Anglo-Saxon crosses of this kind are exceptionally rare, and only one other – much less elaborate – is known from the ninth century. The discovery of this pendant cross, in such a remarkable context, is of major importance for the study of early medieval goldsmith’s work, and for our understanding of Viking and Anglo-Saxon interactions in this turbulent period.”

The silver spiral chain wrapped around the cross was particularly intricate, made from wire less than a millimetre in diameter and wrapped around an organic core, preserved within the coiled silver and identified as animal gut. Conservators improvised a cleaning tool by carving a porcupine quill, sharp enough to remove the dirt yet soft enough not to damage the metalwork.

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The cross partially cleaned. Photo courtesy National Museums Scotland

“Our approach to developing further understanding of the Galloway Hoard involves the great patience, careful examination and pain-staking care of conservation, combined with wide-ranging research on the great variety of materials and objects in this outstanding hoard,” says Dr Martin Goldberg, Principal Curator of Early Medieval and Viking collections for National Museums Scotland. “The cross is a wonderfully visual representation of the work we have been doing to reveal new details about the Galloway Hoard. The conservation work lets us see this object clearly for the first time in over a thousand years, but it also reveals a whole new set of questions.

“Silver bullion, hacksilver and ingots, formed the upper parcel of the Galloway Hoard, but there was also this very unusual feature – a cross with a fine spiral chain – recently worn, but damaged. This one object poses many of the questions that we often start with when we are talking about the Viking Age. Was it bullion too, destined to be melted down into the types of ingots it was found with? We can easily imagine this cross being robbed from a Christian cleric during a raid on a church – a classic stereotype of the Viking Age. But the complexity of this hoard forces us to reconsider simple stereotypes.”

Photo courtesy National Museums Scotland

Comparison with other collections and consultation with specialists around the world has enabled a deeper understanding of the Galloway Hoard. An Old English runic inscription on an arm-ring fragment has revealed the name ‘Egbert’, perhaps a person associated with the Hoard’s burial. The Old English name, rather than a Scandinavian one, has led to more questions about the identities of those involved with the Hoard’s accumulation and burial. More detailed scientific analysis is enabling greater precision about the date and composition of the material, which in turn offers clues to where the individual objects may have come from.

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“The cross is just one of many unusual features in the Galloway Hoard.” adds Dr Goldberg. “Late Anglo-Saxon Christian metalwork is very unusual in Viking-age silver hoards. As well as silver bullion, the Galloway Hoard contains a large collection of brooches, bracelets, glass beads, pendants, curios, heirlooms and more gold than any other hoard surviving from Viking-age Britain and Ireland, as well as outstanding preservation of organic materials including Scotland’s earliest examples of silk.

The collection was purchase by the National Museums Scotland in 2017, and after several delays caused by the COVID-19 pandemic, it is scheduled to go on display in Edinburgh from May 29th to September 12th, 2021. Click here for more details.

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