Keen treasure hunter Derek McLennan is a former businessman who hails from Ayrshire in southwest Scotland. And on this particular day, he was standing in a field with two friends when his metal detector started beeping. But little did McLennan know that sheer euphoria awaited below the ground for the three of them.
However, this find might never have come to pass. In fact, on this morning in September 2014, McLennan had awoke feeling rather unwell. But he’d already promised two friends – fellow detectorists Rev. Dr. David Bartholomew and Mike Smith, a Pentecostal pastor – that he would go treasure hunting.
After all, when it came to finding buried treasure, McLennan already had something of a track record. In fact, in 2013 he and another friend, Gus Paterson, had discovered a huge hoard of more than 300 medieval silver coins near Twynholm, Scotland. Was that extraordinary piece of luck about to repeat itself?
So the three men went about their business, methodically quartering the field, which belonged to the Church of Scotland. Then, quite suddenly, McLennan got a signal. Was it an old soda can? Some silver foil? What it appeared to be was an old spoon, so really nothing to get excited about.
But then, McLennan began to examine the supposed spoon more closely. “I unearthed the first piece,” he told the BBC. “Initially I didn’t understand what I had found because I thought it was a silver spoon. And then I turned it over and wiped my thumb across it, and I saw the Saltire-type of design and knew instantly it was Viking.”
Derek was gripped by the jubilation of an important discovery, and he needed to share it. As he told the BBC, “My senses exploded, I went into shock, endorphins flooded my system, and away I went stumbling towards my colleagues waving it in the air.”
So what exactly had McLennan found? Well, no less than perhaps the biggest trove of Viking treasure ever discovered. And incredibly, it had been buried and lain hidden for 1,000 years. The find included gold and silver ingots, brooches and armbands. But of special interest to McLennan’s two clerical friends was an early medieval Christian cross.
Once the celebrations had abated, however, the three seasoned treasures hunters knew what they had to do next. Indeed, they had to report their find to the Scottish Treasure Trove Unit. Subsequently, then, the site was placed under round-the-clock guard. In fact, a local farmer even left his largest bull in the field, just in case anyone would be tempted to enter.
Stuart Campbell, who presides over the National Museum of Scotland’s Treasure Trove Unit, underlined the massive importance of the find. In the wake of the discovery, he told the BBC, “Nothing like this has been found in Scotland before in terms of the range of material this hoard represents. There’s material from Ireland, from Scandinavia, from various places in central Europe and perhaps ranging over a couple of centuries.”
So a full archaeological dig was soon set in motion, which unearthed yet more treasure. And it turned out that there were actually two distinct layers of items. In all, they contained around 100 precious artifacts including silver ingots, arm rings and a gold pin in the shape of a bird.
One especially intriguing find from the lower layer was a large silver alloy pot with a lid. It was wrapped in decayed fabric and probably already a century old when it was hidden in the mid-9th or 10th century. Experts decided that the pot should be X-rayed before attempting to open it, to avoid any possible injury to whatever was inside.
And so the pot was taken to the nearby Borders General Hospital. Here, the X-ray unit, more familiar with diagnosing patients, was used to scan the treasure. The resulting image showed that, excitingly, the pot itself contained a minimum of 20 artifacts.
Finally, after meticulous efforts by expert conservators, the contents of the pot were revealed to the public in March 2016. The marvels inside included Byzantium silk, six silver Anglo-Saxon brooches and a gold ingot.
Undoubtedly, then, the Viking treasure is invaluable to archaeologists and historians. But what is it worth in modern-day monetary terms? Well, the final value of what is now known as the Galloway Hoard is yet to be assessed. Current estimates, though, put it at between $630,000 and $1.2 million.
The treasure is presently held by the Treasure Trove Unit, which is collaborating with the Office of Queen’s and Lord Treasurer’s Remembrancer. Eventually, Scottish Museums will be able to bid for the treasure, and the proceeds will go to the finders.
Who were these Vikings that left this extraordinary treasure trove, never returning to retrieve it? Unfortunately, the precise identity of the people who buried the hoard, and their motivation for doing so, remains a mystery.
Historians, though, tell us that the Vikings first came to Britain in their long boats in about 790 A.D. They were far from friendly and quickly built a reputation for ruthless plunder and violence, throwing the local population into panic. This Viking pillage and piracy continued for three centuries.
One day, then, this magnificent treasure hoard will be a source of wonder to museum visitors. But experts are already excited about the new knowledge that they’ll gain about Viking interactions with Scotland. Viking specialist Olwyn Owen told National Geographic, “This hoard will add hugely to our understanding of Viking movements around the landscape, their interactions with other people [and] their craftsmanship.”
The treasure may even end up in a brand new museum in the former town hall of Kircudbright. It’s a Scottish town appropriately located close to where the hoard was found, and the local council is currently fundraising for the ambitious project.
We can only assume that whoever buried the treasure in the first place must have had a very good reason for doing so. McLennan, for example, refers to a local legend in Galloway that recalls how the Scots triumphed over a Viking army in the area. So perhaps it was a vanquished Viking chieftain who buried his treasure as he fled for his life from the battlefield…