When Derek MacLennan came across what appeared to be a Viking silver hoard whilst metal detecting in a field near what was possibly the mediaeval religious foundation of Balmaghie in Kirkudbrightshire in 2014 – the old name for Galloway is the Gall-Gaèdil, “land of the Gaelic-speaking foreigners” – he had little idea in those first few elated moments that what lay beneath his feet comprised the earliest, and most unusual, Viking-era hoard found in Scotland.

Much of its treasure, whether in its fine Anglo-Saxon decorative metalwork, its intriguing rock crystal jar overlaid with gold mesh and filligree, its “Viking” silver arm-rings carved unusually with Anglo-Saxon runes, the sheer amount of gold objects, unprecedented in hoards found to date in Britain and Ireland, was wrapped in miraculously-surviving fragments of wool, linen, silk and leather, within an enigmatic carved vessel. The Galloway Hoard, seen on display here for the first time after the painstaking conservation efforts of the last few years, has proved so highly unusual as a Viking era burial that the questions raised by its contents seem only to proliferate the more it is investigated.

It is all laid out in the National Museum of Scotland, which was allocated the hoard in 2017, the fundraising project contributed to by thousands of members of the public, in a dark-walled room, the treasures gleaming from their display cases. Information abounds, and whilst touch screens are a no-no in a time of Covid, there are 3D representations of the hoard and its more enigmatic contents, still to be physically “unwrapped”.

The hoard was found in two layers, its separations marked out in the exhibition to illuminate the findings of the past few years. An uppermost “decoy” layer of decorated silver arm-rings, and a lower layer, under some gravel, which contained the lidded, carved vessel, so conducive to preservation, more silver arm rings and a wooden box containing three gold items, including the iconic inlaid bird pin that has come to represent the hoard.

Despite the significant amount on display here, in all its shiny, conserved glory, there is much still to investigate, from the earliest remains of silk found in Scotland, to an unusual rock crystal jar, which may have its origins in Ancient Rome.

Other fascinating, and fully-conserved objects include a Christian pectoral cross found nestled amongst the top layer of silver arm-rings. Aside from the fact that Anglo-Saxon and Christian objects are rare in Viking-era hoards, the conservation of the piece, covered for over 1000 years in dirt and corrosion, has since revealed a stunning object inlaid with gold and silver sulphide, a high status object that poses yet more questions about the ownership of the hoard.

Dr Martin Goldberg, Principal Curator of Mediaeval Archaeology and History at the National Museum of Scotland, still remembers his first sight of the hoard contents. “I got to see it quite early on,” he tells me by phone as the exhibition opens its doors in Edinburgh, nearly a year late due to Covid. “I was installing a big European Viking exhibition in Berlin when I got the notification, and as the pictures were coming through on email, I was looking around the exhibition hall I was in and thinking, ooh, there’s something like that! And there’s something like this! It was almost like a pick ’n’ mix of other famous European hoards.”

There is still much to discover, from the lidded vessel itself, found wrapped in layers of wool – since carbon-dated to the mid 7th-8th centuries, from some 200 years before the hoard was buried – and containing a number of intriguing items, from lovely glass beads to a gilded rock crystal jar.

“It’s a totally different range of material to what we normally find in a Viking age hoard. Inside the vessel, there were things that look like heirlooms, like they’ve been handed down in a family for some time,” says Goldberg, who has spent the past few years following leads which seem to lead further and further east, not least the somewhat staggering realisation that the jar itself was Zoroastrian in iconography – a religion of Ancient Persia – rather than Christian.

“It’s exotic stuff – the earliest silk found in Scotland, and originating in Asia, rock crystal from Ancient Rome – that must have been a very special family! There are things in there that we’ve never seen before.”

This being archaeology, it is not just the gold that excites, but the near-impossibilities of survival, such as two balls of dirt, found curiously amongst the heirlooms, both over 1,000 years old, rolled by hand, and with a possible and staggering analogy, Dr Goldberg now thinks, to the “earth relics” from the shrines of the Holy Land collected by early mediaeval Popes. The exhibition shows the work we’ve done so far,” he tells me. “But when I look at the exhibition, it also poses a great question – what can we learn in the future from the amazing potential of this material?” It is fascinating and thoroughly tantalising stuff.

The Galloway Hoard: Viking Age Treasure, National Museum of Scotland, Chambers Street, Edinburgh, 0300 123 6789, www.nms.ac.uk, Dailly 10am - 4.30pm (advance booking for museum entry time slots required), Until 12 Sep, then touring to Kirkudbright Galleries in October and Aberdeen Museum and Art Gallery in Summer 2022

Critic's Choice

It is that time of year again – although if these times have shown us anything, it is that we can take no previous assumptions about time for granted – when hundreds of art college students around Scotland mount their final degree course shows for adjudication, both officially by tutors and unofficially by members of the public curious to see who the next generation of artists might be.

With Covid very much still with us, particularly when it comes to indoor, multi-spectator activities, work, despite being installed in college, is again online in ever-slicker digital showcases this year. Glasgow launched their degree show last week, along with UHI and Grays – all available to view now – while Edinburgh College of Art launches on 18th June. This weekend, it’s the turn of Duncan of Jordanstone, whose hopeful soon-to-be-graduates include Chenoa Beedie, from Glasgow, whose work explores cultural identity and how it relates to land – she has both Scottish and Native American heritage – in part as a result of life-long racial abuse, and with a fascination with how we relate to the world based on our own unique, and sometimes complex, identities. In Product Design, Nick Fitzpatrick redesigns the kettle to be accessible to all – and also rather cool – inspired, rather wonderfully, by a desire to solve his grandmother’s difficulties with using the common, but for some very awkward, kitchen appliance. And then there is Fine Art student Laura Porteous, whose horror at the amount of plastic washed up on our shores has led her to investigate and use the image of “ghost gear”, lost fishing gear that ends up tangled on our beaches and under the seas, harming wildlife, in work that addresses the impact of human action, and inaction, on the natural world around us.

Duncan of Jordanstone College of Art and Design, Graduate Showcase www.dundee.ac.uk/graduate-showcase Degree shows from all Art Schools around Scotland available online on their respective websites throughout June and beyond.

Don't Miss

With art galleries and holiday accomodation open, there are many options for those wanting to combine the two. In July, at Marchmont House in the Borders, sculptor Thomas Hawson and Charlie Poulsen will give guided tours and talks on their work for art lovers booked in to the country house for the weekend. Entitled Conversations in Nature and Sculpture, the second of the weekends features artists Andrew Mackenzie and Michelle de Bruin, and is all part of Marchmont owner Hugo Burge’s aim to make the estate a place for “Makers and Creators”. Non-residential outdoor sculpture tours are also available at other times.

Conversations in Nature and Sculpture, Marchmont House, Greenlaw, Duns, 2-4 July and 16-18 July, All-inclusive weekend £399; Non-residential Outdoor Sculpture Tour £15, 01361 866080, www.marchmonthouse.com