I took my kids to see the Galloway Hoard at the weekend. Of course once they’d seen the gold jewellery they were totally bored: but I was transfixed. Given that the pinnacle of my detectoring was the discovery of 3 rusty nails, a bottle cap and a corroded 2p, I find it amazing that the detectorist in this case found a 1000 year old hoard worth 2 million pounds, and worth immeasurably more to our understanding of Scottish history.
The hoard was found in a field in Kirkcudbrightshire in 2014 and is now on display in Edinburgh before it tours. It’s a mixture of valuable metals and religious artefacts, but some puzzles as well. For instance, in the hoard they discovered two carefully preserved lumps of mud. This was so bizarre that they subjected them to detailed chemical tests, which suggest they’re in fact earth relics: it seems that pilgrims to the Holy Land would rub earth on the shrines they visited then bring the earth home as a sacred memory of their trip.
I know my kids do something similar with sand from every beach they’ve ever visited, but something about these 1000-year-old mud balls really caught me. They were buried deep below the decoy hoard above, nestled in a precious silver-gilt vessel, and contain microscopic flecks of gold and bone. What on earth were they doing in Galloway in 900AD?
While I get really excited about treasure and hoards, it struck me with this one that they’re also singularly tragic: no-one came back to retrieve these treasures, so their owner must have been slaughtered in some Viking raid, or at least died in circumstances that prevented them from telling anyone else where to look. They’d personally survived a perilous trip to the Holy Land only to die back in Scotland in abrupt circumstances.
Then I think of all those cheery ceramics I’ve brought back from Mediterranean holidays. They never quite work in the cold Scottish light, but I think I keep buying souvenirs because I’m hoping somehow to trap the experience so I can take it home. These mud balls must have been our ancestor’s attempt to bring the holiness of their pilgrimage back to Galloway, to bless their home and their community. I hope they were happy there, while they lived.
I have been delivering “Thought For The Day” pieces on BBC Radio Scotland since November 2016. By kind permission these pieces are reproduced in blog posts here on my website. To find my other pieces click here go to my Thought For The Day index page.