In the year 2014, a passionate amateur treasure hunter named Derek McLennan embarked on a quest in southwestern Scotland, scouring a field in search of hidden artifacts. It was during this pursuit that he made a remarkable discovery—an intricately decorated piece of silver adorned with an Anglo-Saxon design. Overwhelmed with excitement, McLennan recounted his experience, saying, “I went into shock, endorphins flooded my system, and away I went stumbling towards my colleagues, waving it in the air.” Little did he know that this initial finding was just the tip of a magnificent archaeological iceberg.
Accompanied by two friends, McLennan had inadvertently stumbled upon a vast hoard of over 100 gold and silver objects, constituting one of the most substantial collections of Viking-era artifacts ever unearthed in the United Kingdom. This extraordinary find, later known as the Galloway Hoard, was eventually acquired by the National Museums Scotland in 2017. Since then, a team of dedicated conservators has been meticulously working to clean and restore these treasures, which had lain buried in Scottish soil for more than a millennium. Recently, the National Museum of Scotland (NMS) unveiled new images of the latest object to undergo the delicate process of conservation—an exquisitely decorated Anglo-Saxon cross.
After a thousand years underground, the cross had accumulated layers of dirt and grime. Its unique construction, featuring a coiled silver cord made from wire wrapped around an animal-gut core, presented a challenge during the cleaning process. In a stroke of improvisation, conservators turned to a carved porcupine quill, utilizing its sharpness to remove the accumulated dirt while ensuring the preservation of the intricate metalwork. As the meticulous cleaning progressed, the true beauty of the cross began to emerge. Its ornate decorations, composed of black niello—an alloy of metals—and delicate gold leaf, were revealed. Each arm of the cross bore an elaborate engraving representing one of the four Gospel writers from the Christian New Testament: Saint Matthew as a human, Saint Mark as a lion, Saint Luke as a calf, and Saint John as an eagle.
According to Leslie Webster, former curator of Britain, prehistory, and Europe at the British Museum, the pectoral cross is an outstanding example of the Anglo-Saxon goldsmith’s art. She describes it as having “subtle decoration of evangelist symbols and foliage, glittering gold and black inlays, and its delicately coiled chain.” Such crosses from the Anglo-Saxon era are exceptionally rare, with only one other, much less elaborate, known to exist from the ninth century. Webster emphasizes the immense significance of this discovery, stating that the pendant cross, found within this remarkable context, greatly contributes to our understanding of early medieval goldsmithing techniques and sheds light on the interactions between the Vikings and the Anglo-Saxons during this turbulent period.
Archaeologists believe that the cross, along with the rest of the hoard, was buried sometime in the ninth century A.D. Martin Goldberg, the principal curator of early medieval and Viking collections at NMS, suggests that this elaborate piece likely belonged to a high-ranking cleric or king. The chain, now tightly wrapped around the cross, would have once been suspended from the wearer’s neck, indicating its significance as a personal and cherished possession. Goldberg speculates that the cross was stolen during a Viking raid, as historical records from the Viking age often describe the looting of ecclesiastical treasures from monasteries. Thus, the cross stands as a survivor—a testament to the tumultuous times it endured.
For those fortunate enough to visit in person, the cross was exhibited at the National Museum of Scotland in Edinburgh from February 19 to May 9, 2021. The captivating display, titled “Galloway Hoard: Viking-Age Treasure,” not only showcased the Anglo-Saxon cross but also included other noteworthy discoveries from the hoard, such as rare silver bracelets, a gold ring, and a gold pin. Together, these artifacts provided a fascinating glimpse into the rich history of the Viking era and the enduring allure of hidden treasures waiting to be unearthed.