Freed of 1,000 Years of Grime, Anglo-Saxon Cross Emerges in Stunning Detail

Conservation revealed the artifact, discovered with Scotland’s Galloway Hoard, as an example of intricate Viking-era metalwork

Left, a square cross wrapped in what looks like metal wire; totally encrusted with reddish brown dirt; right, 3 of four arms of the cross have been cleaned, to reveal intricate engravings underneath
This rare Anglo Saxon cross spent more than 1,000 years buried in a Scottish field. Left: the cross pre-conservation, and right: the cross mid-cleaning National Museums Scotland

In 2014, amateur treasure hunter Derek McLennan was scouring a field in southwestern Scotland when he unearthed what appeared to be a bit of silver decorated with an Anglo-Saxon design.

“I went into shock, endorphins flooded my system and away I went stumbling towards my colleagues waving it in the air,” the retired businessman told BBC News at the time.

As it turns out, the rare artifact that caught McLennan’s eye was just the tip of an archaeological iceberg: He and two friends had stumbled onto a hoard of more than 100 gold and silver objects—one of the biggest troves of Viking-era artifacts ever found in the United Kingdom.

National Museums Scotland acquired the Galloway Hoard, as it came to be known, in 2017. Since then, conservators have been working to clean and restore the items, all of which spent more than 1,000 years buried in the Scottish field. This week, the National Museum of Scotland (NMS) released new images of the latest object to undergo conservation: an intricately decorated Anglo-Saxon cross.

After a millennium underground, the cross was encrusted with dirt. Wrapped in a coiled silver cord made out of wire bundled around an animal-gut core, it proved difficult to clean. Improvising, conservators turned to a carved porcupine quill—a tool “sharp enough to remove the dirt yet soft enough not to damage the metalwork,” according to a statement.

Cleaning revealed the cross’ ornate decorations of black niello, or metallic alloy, and gold leaf. As Alan Young reports for the Scotsman, each arm of the item bears an intricate engraving of one of the four Gospel writers from the Christian New Testament: Saint Matthew as a human, Saint Mark as a lion, Saint Luke as a calf and Saint John as an eagle.

Freed of 1,000 Years of Grime, Anglo-Saxon Cross Emerges in Stunning Detail
Curators used an improvised tool made of porcupine quill to gently clean the cross, which features engravings of the four Gospel writers. National Museums Scotland

“The pectoral cross, with its subtle decoration of evangelist symbols and foliage, glittering gold and black inlays, and its delicately coiled chain, is an outstanding example of the Anglo-Saxon goldsmith’s art,” says Leslie Webster, former curator of Britain, prehistory and Europe at the British Museum, in the statement.

“Anglo-Saxon crosses of this kind are exceptionally rare, and only one other—much less elaborate—is known from the ninth century,” she continues. “The discovery of this pendant cross, in such a remarkable context, is of major importance for the study of early medieval goldsmiths’ work, and for our understanding of Viking and Anglo-Saxon interactions in this turbulent period.”

Archaeologists think that someone buried the cross, in addition to the rest of the hoard, sometime in the ninth century A.D. Martin Goldberg, NMS’ principal curator of early medieval and Viking collections, tells the Observer’s Dalya Alberge that the elaborate piece likely belonged to a high-ranking cleric or king.

The chain now wrapped tightly around the cross would once have been suspended from the wearer’s neck, Goldberg says.

“You could almost imagine someone taking it off their neck and wrapping the chain around it to bury it in the ground,” the curator adds. “It has that kind of personal touch.”

Goldberg suspects that the cross was stolen in a Viking raid.

“We imagine that a lot of ecclesiastical treasures were robbed from monasteries—that’s what the historical record of the Viking age describes to us,” he tells the Observer. “This is one of the [survivors].”

For those who can visit in person, the cross will be on public display at the Edinburgh museum from February 19 to May 9, 2021. Other signature discoveries from the hoard, including rare silver bracelets, a gold ring and a gold pin, will also feature in the show, titled Galloway Hoard: Viking-Age Treasure.”