(Illustration by Femke de Jong)
I can remember exactly where I was in July 2009 when I heard of the discovery of the Staffordshire hoard. We were filming in a field in Kibworth when a friend phoned with the news. Though the exact location was still under wraps, the site was near Hammerwich by the A5 near Lichfield; the date maybe late seventh century. Did the findspot have any significance, I wondered? (It did: Hammerwich had been Mercian royal land.) Then came the details: among the gold and silver treasures were 86 sword pommels and more than 200 hilt plates. This was clearly not loot from a church, but rather military plunder – or a ransom? The excitement didn’t let up. Once the hoard went on display in Birmingham, people queued round the block to see it.
That story shows the fantastic impact of a new source of evidence: metal detecting. By properly recording their finds and liaising with archaeologists, metal detectorists are placing vital material in the hands of historians. Some recent finds may connect very closely with real events. The Harrogate Hoard may link to Æthelstan’s conquest of Northumbria in 927, and a 2015 discovery in Watlington has opened a window on the shadowy but crucial moment after the battle of Edington when Alfred the Great was strong-arming the Mercians to create his ‘kingdom of the Anglo-Saxons’. Not so long ago, metal detecting was frowned upon; now it is an increasingly valuable tool.
Another astonishing find was made in September 2014 near Kirkcudbright in Dumfriesshire: the Galloway Hoard, comprising more than 100 gold and silver objects, among them armbands, silver ingots and a Christian cross. Within a ninth-century Carolingian silver alloy pot, still wrapped in cloth, were pieces of crystal and gold, Anglo-Saxon disc brooches, a rare Irish brooch, a piece of Byzantine silk and a beautiful gold bird pin.
Nothing like it has ever been found before in Scotland, and it is all the more extraordinary because its context remains a mystery. Even the date is uncertain, though it is certainly Viking Age – perhaps the nest egg of a Viking leader under whose wooden hall the treasure may have been buried for safekeeping.
Such a spectacular discovery only underlines how little we know of the history of this often ignored corner of the British Isles during the early Middle Ages. Across Wigtown Bay from Kirkcudbright is the ancient church of Whithorn, near which was found the Latinus Stone dating from c450, around the time of the saint we know as Ninian. The area was settled by Northumbrians in the seventh or eighth century, when the splendid Ruthwell Cross was erected nearby. Recent archaeological digs have traced Whithorn’s story through to destructions and rebuildings in the Viking Age.
In the early 900s a new wave of Viking settlers arrived in the Irish Sea zone. Then, in 927, Æthelstan led his army north, and near Penrith the kings of Scots and Strathclyde swore to him they would suppress idolatry among the new Norse Irish settlers in Galloway. Whithorn itself was brought back into the fold for a brief time as Æthelstan attempted to restore the church of York in the outer reaches of Northumbria. Perhaps this was when the Galloway Hoard was buried – when the Solway region suddenly drew the attention of the ‘King of all Britain’.
That’s just a guess. But the hoard certainly comes from a fascinating and little-known time, when the kingdoms of the Scots and Strathclyde Welsh, the Dublin Vikings and the kings of the English found their interests converging here. Whatever the origin of the hoard, it is already casting unexpected light on this formative time, both north and south of the border. Hopefully it will also attract visitors to this beautiful part of Britain, where an Anglo-Saxon history trail leads from Carlisle through Bewcastle into Scotland, to Ruthwell and Whithorn. And this autumn, an appeal aims to raise £1.98m by 12 November to enable the Galloway treasure to be kept for the nation (nms.ac.uk).
As for metal detectorists across the UK, the exciting prospect is that – as long as things are properly reported and recorded – there is much, much more to be found.
Michael Wood is professor of public history at the University of Manchester. He has presented numerous BBC series and his books include The Story of England (Viking, 2010)