Scientists discover name of mystery bishop on rare Viking hoard crystal

Crystal jarPhoto: Neil Hanna / National Museums Scotland
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A group of Scottish scientists has identified a name of an unknown bishop on a rock crystal jar uncovered as part of a Viking Age hoard. 

A rare rock crystal jar found wrapped in textiles as part of the Galloway Hoard has been conserved, revealing a Latin inscription written in gold. The inscription says the jar was made for a bishop named Hyguald, according to a press release from the National Museums Scotland.

Most of the Galloway Hoard is on display at Kirkcudbright Galleries until July 10, 2022, in a National Museums Scotland touring exhibition supported by the Scottish government. 

However, some material that was wrapped in extremely fragile, rarely surviving textiles is undergoing careful conservation and meticulous research behind the scenes as part of a three-year, GBP 1 million Arts and Humanities Research Council-funded project led by National Museums Scotland in partnership with the University of Glasgow. 

When first removed as a bundle, the jar could be only partially glimpsed through its textile wrapping. 3D X-ray imaging produced in partnership with the British Museum allowed the object to be investigated within its wrapping without damaging it. This revealed that the base had an inscription.  

The jar, which is around 5 centimeters high and resembles an ornate perfume bottle, is thought to have had an ecclesiastical function. It has now been carefully separated from its wrapping. The Latin inscription on the base, spelled out in gold letters, translates as “Bishop Hyguald had me made.” 

It is the clearest evidence that some of the material in the hoard may have come from a church in the Anglo-Saxon kingdom of Northumbria, which included Dumfries and Galloway, and stretched as far north as Edinburgh and as far south as Sheffield, according to the press release, the Viking Herald writes.

Mystery bishop

“The inscription is in Latin, which was the universal language of the Western Church in those days. The sources and records of the period are incomplete, but what we do know from them is that there were several ecclesiastics in early Medieval Northumbria with the name Hyguald. We don’t know of a Bishop Hyguald, specifically, but our lists of Northumbrian bishops are incomplete after 810. It is accordingly – and frustratingly – difficult to be more precise, but it may well be that what we’re looking at is an otherwise undocumented mid-9th century bishop of either Whithorn or Hexham,” professor Alex Woolf, senior lecturer at the University of St. Andrews, said. 

“It looks, from the carved surface of the Galloway Hoard rock crystal, that this was once the capital of a Corinthian-style crystal column. This is unique in early medieval Britain, but there are parallels within the Roman Empire for objects of this type. The ones that I have seen are in the Vatican collection, where there are different forms of carved crystal columns. And so it was maybe 500 years old by the time it was transformed in the late 8th or early 9th century into a gold-wrapped jar,” Martin Goldberg, principal curator for medieval archaeology and history at the National Museums Scotland, noted. 

A rare crystal

“Rock crystal is unusual in itself. It is one of those materials that was greatly prized in the antique world for its transparency and translucency, and so it’s associated with purity. So it was, I think even in its time, very, very special. And you can see from the way that the gold almost enshrines it; it’s made into a sort of relic. It’s a showcasing piece from a very high-status workshop, such as one that you might expect a bishop to have in one of his monasteries. This object is absolutely fascinating. I’ve seen a lot of Anglo-Saxon finds over the years in my professional career, some of them amazing. But this absolutely knocks them all into a cocked hat,” Leslie Webster, former Keeper of Britain, Prehistory, and Europe at the British Museum, said. 

The exhibition, “Galloway hoard: Viking-age treasure,” runs at Kirkcudbright Galleries until July 10, 2022, and will tour thereafter to Aberdeen Art Gallery. 

 The Galloway Hoard is the richest collection of rare and unique Viking-age objects ever found in Britain or Ireland. It was discovered in 2014 and acquired by National Museums Scotland in 2017 with the support of the National Heritage Memorial Fund, Art Fund, the Scottish government, and a major public fundraising campaign. Since then, it has been undergoing extensive conservation and research at Edinburgh’s National Museums Collection Centre.  

Source: National Museums Scotland / #Norway Today / #NorwayTodayTravel

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