Egbert may in fact have been there

As teaching fell upon me like a soaked-through ceiling in October 2019, somehow I came across a news story about a medieval object, and it was the kind of news story that made me stub a blog-post of objection. But, since I knew I would be writing this up at some remove – and look, here we are, removed – I also left myself a note hoping that some better coverage would have emerged, and man, has it ever. So what I thought would be a post about a silly news story, in which experts were coaxed into conjecturing further than I think would have – though my record’s not great, I know – is now become a post whose main purpose is just to invite you, in the words of William Shatner, to “ponder the mystery.”1 And in the end, I have to conclude that the story may have been right all along. But let me walk you through my steps to this conclusion, because the path is really intriguing.

Flattened and folder silver arm-rings from the Galloway Hoard in the National Museum of Scotland

Flattened and folder silver arm-rings from the Galloway Hoard. Illustrating this post has been more difficult than it could have been because the National Museums of Scotland have a crystal-clear and very restrictive image use policy, which could be paraphrased as ‘pay up or lump it’. Happily, they do appear to have agreed the release of a few images to Wikimedia Commons, where they are free for reuse as long as copyright is stated. Unhappily, this doesn’t include a clear image of the actual bent silver strip with runes on that I was originally caught by, although there’s a good licensed image in the article which first showed it to me. This image, meanwhile, is by National Museums Scotland, copyright to National Museums of Scotland but licensed under CC BY-SA 4.0, Wikimedia Commons.

So, in case you’d rather read me than follow that first link, in which case thankyou, I’d better explain the story I first found. It was the first I’d heard of a 2014 find which we were by 2019 calling the Galloway Hoard, which came up on Church land – not, as far as I can see, a church yard, but land belonging to the Church of Scotland, who are indeed in the process of suing the finder – near Balmaghie in Galloway.2 The story doesn’t say much about the actual hoard, but focuses on a silver strip within it, originally part of an arm-ring, which is one of four such in the hoard which bear Old English runes. In this case, they spell the name ‘Ecgbeorht’, Egbert, also pretty solidly Old English. The article is at pains to stress that there were even in 900 English-speaking people in Galloway—”‘it is even possible that these were locals'”—however odd that might seem, and seemed keen to make the person here named not just the owner of the arm-ring but the person or one of the people who had buried the hoard: “a message left by one of the people who may have deposited the Galloway Hoard 1100 years ago.” And that was the point at which I baulked.

A combination of items from the Galloway Hoard, National Museums of Scotland

A combination of various items from the hoard, including two of the flattened arm-rings, a silver brooch, a gold pin in the shape of a bird, two complex glass bears, a disc brooch and some gold wire. Image by National Museums Scotland, copyright of National Museums Scotland, licensed under CC BY-SA 4.0 via Wikimedia Commons.

I still think that, on the basis of that information only, my scepticism was not unreasonable. (What was unreasonable was my not looking for more information, and indeed, some might say, not having yet heard of the hoard given my job and so on. But my thinking was thus: point 1, even from the few illustrations in that article it was clear to me that this was a Viking-style hoard, with cut-up silver bullion in it and artefacts from all over the map bundled in together.3 Point 2, Galloway circa 900 was kind of an uncontrolled space whose inhabitants were infamous for banditry and plunder across the whole northern Irish Sea area.4 If, therefore, point 3, there was stuff in this hoard with English connections, it seemed surpassingly likely to me that it had been stolen from somewhere in England and brought here. In that scenario, Egbert was very unlikely to be a local, rather than a victim of the locals on their latest cruise into Northumbria or the Borders-to-be. And that, in very short form, was the post I thought I was going to write.

An assemblage from the Galloway Hoard under inspection by Dr Martin Goldberg in the National Museum of SCotland

An assemblage from the hoard, including most of the ingots and arm-rings, under inspection by a cropped-out Dr Martin Goldberg. Image by National Museums Scotland, copyright of National Museums Scotland, licensed under CC BY-SA 4.0 via Wikimedia Commons.

But, because of that note, when I sat down to start writing this after a day of computerised monkey-work with reading lists and postgraduate admissions, I did do at least a bit more looking, and the whole thing very rapidly went fractal bloom, if you will: every part of it I poked up opened up into something even more complicated. For a start, the hacksilver bundles were curious. There was among them a rather fine silver pectoral cross which had not been cut up or damaged, for a start.

Silver pectoral cross recovered from the Galloway Hoard

The cross; it was found wrapped in chain as it is seen here, and has been conserved that way too. Image by National Museums Scotland and copyright to National Museums Scotland, licensed under CC BY-SA 4.0 viaWikimedia Commons.

Also, one slightly separate bundle comprised four intact arm-rings, bound together with a fifth, twisted into a kind of fastening that bundled up a small wooden box, now decayed, with three tiny bits of gold inside, the bird, an ingot and a ring. And this was interesting not least because the other arm-rings, which had been flattened out, folded and buried with ingots, had been folded in four different ways, and within each group of rings folded in a certain way, one, only, was marked with Old English runes. Ecgbeorht’s name was the only one which seemed to be complete, but the others were ‘Ed’, ‘Til’ and ‘Ber’, all of which could begin Old English names, and in general it seemed possible that all four groups had someone’s name on, which made the repetition of four together with the intact arm-rings look like more than coincidence.

Three gold objects recovered from within a bundle of silver arm-rings in the Galloway Hoard in the National Museum of Scotland

The copyright-free images I can get at don’t include the bundle of arm-rings, though you can see it in the Current Archaeology webpage I just linked, but here are the three bits of gold from within them. Image by JvL on, licensed under CC BY 2.0 via Wikimedia Commons.

So by this stage, too much already seemed to have been staged and arranged at this point of deposit for this to be an ordinary hacksilver hoard. But the fractal bloom had not yet finished opening. Beneath all of this, only discovered because of a final sweep with metal-detectors after the archæologists thought they had cleared the site, was a further cache, even more carefully concealed, comprising a silver jar with its lid sealed on, surrounded by the remains of what had been three layers of textile wrapping. This was carefully lifted, taken to a lab, x-rayed and finally – after caution running into years – opened to reveal two ornate silver brooches, several silver strap-ends, several miniature bits of goldwork, two rolled-up balls of dirt peppered through with tiny gold-leaf fragments, and (among still more) two small rock-crystal jars in gold framework. One had been smashed in, perhaps before deposit; but the other, probably Roman in origin before some English goldsmith put it in its frame and equipped it with a spout, bore on the underneath an inscription proclaiming ‘Bishop Hyguald had me made’. The brooches are also helpful for dating, as they are of the fairly late style known as Trewhiddle after a different hoard we once discussed here, which should make them early tenth-century if we accept a stylistic date. But all of this stuff had been very carefully wrapped, placed and arranged to keep it intact. Both jars had been wrapped in silk, then linen, then leather, for example, which we know because it has partially survived. And the silk, when carbon-dated, came out 150-200 years earlier than the stylistic date for the brooches. Just to complete the picture, no-one of that Old English name and Church rank is known from our surviving sources.

Two silver disc brooches from the Galloway Hoard in the National Museum of Scotland

Again, there is no copyright-free image of the jar, which is frustrating because its iconography seems mainly to be Sasanian, or at least post-Sasanian; but the web-page I linked to for it includes an absolutely amazing 3D virtual replica, so go play with that is my advice. There’s also one for the rock-crystal jar. These two brooches are part of the trove that was within along with it. Image by National Museums Scotland and copyright of National Museums Scotland, licensed under CC BY-SA 4.0 via Wikimedia Commons.

The reading of the archæologists and curators, therefore, was that the items in the jar were Church treasure, wrapped in prized Church vestments – not unreasonable – with the dirt balls perhaps being earth or dust from a saint’s shrine or reliquary, flakes of whose gold leaf might have been picked up with the dust – I don’t have a better answer and there are parallels for the practice – and that the jar, once buried with great care and attention, was meant to be protected from discovery by the ‘camouflage’ hoard above it, which would hopefully send any prying excavator away well satisfied without further investigation.5 This was easy for the archæologists to theorise because it had so nearly worked on them; obviously whoever was hiding this stuff didn’t expect metal-detecting, and fair enough.6 And from there it got (more?) fanciful, with the four arm-rings bound together perhaps representing a compact made by the four men named on the silver strips. I mean, yeah, OK, why not? It could be other things too, just a fastening indeed. But it’s certainly not usual and merits some explanation. And it would already seem necessary to admit that, with so much of this kit being identifiably English and apparently buried to be preserved, the names on the arm-rings may indeed be those of people concerned with the deposition, not the original owners, because all of this is matter out of place, including them, so it seems most likely that they moved together and that the preservation purpose was theirs. So maybe, indeed, Egbert was there. But it’s still complicated.

For me, the key aspect is something the write-ups I have so far found don’t say, which hangs on the idea of the camouflage deposit.7 If that’s right – and the different character of the deposits do seem to suggest it – then several things follow.

  1. The depositors were afraid that this hoard would be found; they thought people would come looking and locate it. That suggests either that they were being silly enough to bury it in an obvious place, or that they thought people would come looking so soon that the disturbance of the earth would still be obvious, i. e. that whoever would come was very close behind them; but not so close that they needed to panic and just stuff the treasure in a hole. They had time to plan.
  2. On the other hand, they were obviously not under observation, except by each other, because they expected the trick to work; so whoever was pursuing them didn’t know all of what they had to hide, only that there was something. Ergo, whoever was pursuing them was not the original owners of the treasure.
  3. Also, more speculatively but also more ugly, they presumably didn’t expect everyone to survive. If they were certain of escape, they wouldn’t have buried anything. If they could have been sure any one of them could get clear, they could have given it to him and then held the pursuers off, created a false trail or something. But this strategem means, I think, that they had decided to split up and that no one person could be sure of keeping the goods safe. And in the end, presumably none of them made it…

But the inscribed arm-rings and the intact ones bound together were buried deep too; they were not meant to be found except by the people who put them there. So the hope, however faulty it proved to be, must have been that they would get back to it, and the binding perhaps symbolised agreement that only all four were entitled to claim it, or something like that? I mean, they must have hoped to recover it, the care taken over the deposition of the Church treasure suggests a strong desire to conserve it. But then what were the three, not four, gold objects in the arm-ring bundle to do with it?

To that, I add the following. Knowing that this was the ‘Galloway’ hoard, when an unexplained English bishop came up I thought of the sometime Anglian see at Whithorn, supposed shrine of Saint Ninian and Northumbrian colonising outpost in the lands of the Strathclyde Welsh and perhaps Scots.8 But putting things on a map makes it clear that it’s not exactly ‘far’ Galloway; the location is halfway back to Dumfries. If these people had come from Whithorn they had come some way north and a long way east, and inland. This perhaps means that the sea was barred to them, but it may also mean that their destination – if we assume that they were indeed in transit – was inland. The nearest bishopric in the other direction from the site would have been Hexham, just off Hadrian’s Wall. But, to the best of our knowledge, neither of those sees had had had bishops since early in the ninth century, though that is not a simple thing to claim since, after about that time, our only good narrative source for Church history in the English north for a while is Symeon of Durham’s History of the Church of Durham. This, as you’d expect, is primarily about the claims of Durham and lays claim, as part of its narrative of the exiled wanderings of the monks of Lindisfarne (who would eventually end up at Durham, you see), to lands around Whithorn and Hexham.9 What I’m saying is, if there had been bishops at those sees in the early tenth century, I wouldn’t expect Symeon to want to tell us.

Saint Cuthbert's tomb in Durham Cathedral

The landowner as Symeon saw it, or at least his present earthly location; this is Saint Cuthbert’s tomb in Durham Cathedral. Photo taken by J.&nbs;B. A. Hamilton in Durham Cathedral, 11 September 2010, Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons.

On the other hand… if one were writing the historical novel that this story clearly could source, I might note that Simeon also says that there was a team of seven monks given special care of the shrine of St Cuthbert which the exiles were carrying around with them. But, by the time of a story he tells of them trying to take ship for Ireland, getting miraculously swamped and only just making it back to shore, and therefore deciding Cuthbert didn’t want to go, that seven was down to four, because the others had ‘dropped off’.10 And as it turns out, because Symeon returns to the story so that those four are miraculously able to recover a gold-bound Gospel book which the sea claimed during the attempt, the attempt was made from Whithorn. Four exilic Englishmen, again, hanging out with a dead bishop at Whithorn. (Unfortunately, their names don’t match, though one is called Edmund.11) Furthermore, a bishop of Lindisfarne, Eardulf, died during this exilic progress, in 899. He was succeeded by Cutheard, under whom the monks found temporary refuge at Chester-le-Street.12 Obviously a stylistic dating of metalwork to around 900 doesn’t mean your date has to actually be the year 900; but if you were trying to put an unknown bishop in this area into a sequence, as it happens there’s room for a schism and disagreement exactly then… But that seems like two plots for a novel already, which suggests that I should stop. I might even want to try writing one of them myself! But assuming that you yourself don’t, still: ponder the mystery…

1. I should probably make it clear that that song is not in any way about hoards or archæology. In fact, being William Shatner, it’s only questionably a song rather than a recital. But there he is anyway! Meanwhile, I should also say that there is no academic publication as such that I can find about the Galloway Hoard, which is the subject of this post. There is a museum book which I haven’t yet got, Martin Goldberg and Mary Davis, The Galloway Hoard: Viking-Age Treasure (Edinburgh 2021), but otherwise I’ve been restricted to magazine-level stuff I can find online. This includes stuff by the actual conservators of the objects, such as Martin Goldberg, “Unwrapping the Galloway Hoard: secrets of a Viking Age collection from south-west Scotland” in Current Archaeology no. 376 (London 27 May 2021), pp. 20–27, and stuff deeply informed by their press releases, such as and especially Jason Urbanus, “Secrets of Scotland’s Viking Age Hoard” in Archaeology Vol. 75 no. 3 (Boston MA June 2022), pp. 22–29, so it’s still very useful, but because all that can be linked – and I have – I haven’t cited these for a lot of what follows, and they aren’t always my source. My source is always linked, however.

2. Why are they suing, you may ask, and the link does explain somewhat, but the case was still in progress as of late 2022, so it’s all still sub judice; see Mark Macaskill, “Friendship is biggest casualty in battle for Viking gold” in The Sunday Times (London 25 September 2022), Scotland, p. 5, quite the mess of a story…

3. See “The Silver Hoards of the Vikings” in National Museum of Denmark, online here, for short, or James Graham-Campbell, ‘“Silver Economies” and the Ninth-Century Background’ in James Graham-Campbell, Søren M. Sindbæk and Gareth Williams (edd.), Silver Economies, Monetisation and Society in Scandinavia, AD 800 – 1100: Studies Dedicated to Mark Blackburn (Aarhus 2011), pp. 29–39, for more detail.

4. For the background here see Alex Woolf, From Pictland to Alba, 789– 1070, New Edinburgh History of Scotland 2 (Edinburgh 2007), esp. pp. 122-144.

5. Sources for this supposition are linked, but as to the balls of dirt, as well as the old post linked see for parallels Julia M. H. Smith, “Relics: An Evolving Tradition in Latin Christianity” in Cynthia Hahn and Holger A. Klein (edd.), Saints and Sacred Matter: The Cult of Relics in Byzantium and Beyond (Washington DC 2015), pp. 41–60, online here. The classic case of people raiding dust from a saint’s shrine is Bede’s report of the practice at the shrine of Saint Chad, which you can find in his Ecclesiastical History in your preferred version at Book IV Chapter 3; if you have no preferred version, I used Bede, The Ecclesiastical History of the English People, edd. Judith McClure and Roger Collins, trans. Bertram Colgrave (Oxford 1990).

6. And they clearly didn’t expect dowsing either, just to make that point.

7. Which itself I got from Urbanus, “Secrets”.

8. On which see now most importantly Thomas Owen Clancy, “The Real St Ninian” in Innes Review Vol. 52 (Edinburgh 2001), pp. 1–28, and James E. Fraser, “Northumbrian Whithorn and the Making of St Ninian”, idem Vol. 53 (2002), pp. 40–59.

9. The Historical Works of Simeon of Durham, trans. Joseph Stevenson, Church Historians of England 3.2 (London 1853), online here, pp. 621-791, here esp. capp. XXV-XXXI.

10. Ibid., cap. XXVII.

11. Ibid.. The others were, supposedly, Hunred, Stitheard and Franco. But what if Cuthbert wasn’t the only bishop who got a cadre of four men to carry his body to safety, eh?

12. There must be something more up to date than this now, but what I know that tries to get sense out of Simeon’s story, itself scarcely disinterested scholarship, is C. F. Battiscombe, “Introduction” in idem (ed.), The Relics of Saint Cuthbert (Oxford 1956), pp. 1–114. Woolf, Pictland, threads Simeon through a wider narrative.

13 responses to “Egbert may in fact have been there

  1. Another excellent post! And some very plausible points about the circumstances behind the hoard, which looks more and more unusual with each new piece of work. I think Martin Goldberg and his team have about a decade of research ahead of them unpacking and publishing all this. The more precise find-spot of the hoard is now public knowledge: land near Balmaghie parish church, on the west side of Loch Ken.

    • PS and I see on looking again that you already had Balmaghie in here. Before long it really ought to be known as the Balmaghie hoard – Galloway hoard is too vague.

      • I did, but I didn’t have the church location, so that is interesting, thankyou Rory. The articles I’d read were all so careful about it being ‘Church land’ that I’d assumed it couldn’t be as simple as the churchyard. The question one now wants to ask is ‘how long has there been a church there’? Given that it’s in plausible mission range from Whithorn, it might have been quite a while…

  2. Why have I never met anyone with the surname Egbertson? Does it mean that the first name Egbert had died out before surnames had become commonplace?

    Is there a Gallovidian Gaelic surname that could have started life as MacEgbert?

    • Now there’s a question. I think your conjecture must be right, not least because all the modern surnames of that form I can think of – Robertson, Donaldson, Allinson, etc. – are based on components we still have as names in some form. I can’t think of a single Old English survivor, though some Danish ones (Harold…) creep through. But then, while I don’t know what the chronology is in England, in Catalonia surnames don’t really land till the late eleventh century; I think in England it may have been even later. Before the Peasants’ Revolt (Wat Tyler) and after the Conquest!

  3. Given that screen writers today seem totally bereft of ideas for new movies, here are ideas for at least 3 new plot lines. Great post!

  4. I’ve found this.

    There’s an Egbertson but his first name is Willem. Scrolling down I find “Johanna Gezina Meintje Egbertsen” from Overijssel.

    I conjecture that such names have formed but restricted to the Netherlands and (I guess) Germany, maybe Denmark, with the spelling later perhaps modified to suit English speakers e.g. there’s an Lynda M Egburtson born in the USA.

    I wonder which surnames the Flemings brought with them when King David settled them in Scottish burghs. Suggestion: if there’s just one family in the town their surname is ignored and they are referred to as “Fleming”. But if several families settle their surnames would survive, modified to suit the Scots.

    Potential objection: did Flemings have surnames at that time?

    What fun. Would a generalised version be suitable for a final year dissertation project?

    • Maybe, but it’d have to be in a languages department which taught Dutch, I think! We have had two medievalist PhD students enrolled on a London Dutch course recently because of our own inability to provide it, though to be fair it was Early Modern Dutch they were after. It’s possibly still more suitable for an MA, though, to my mind.

      Still, this all makes sense, because Dutch is a Low German like Frisian but it never caught French as English did, so I’d expect names cognate with Old English ones to survive longer in it, and then to be carried across. I’m not sure you’d need them to be fixed as surnames at the point of migration; you’d just need a Fleming called Egbert to arrive and have a son who was then identified with a patronymic. As long as the personal name survived the possibility of a patronymic form would as well, or at least until surnames did start to fix.

  5. Dutch? A chum did a BA in Modern History: for one option her tutor wanted her to learn Afrikaans. She already read French, German, Latin, and had learned to cope with the English variety of Norman French and 14th-15th century English but she saw Afrikaans as a bridge too far and chose a different option.

    Mind you, we once received a printed postcard from Sweden and could read a fair bit of it – an advantage of growing up in Scotland. And on the ferry from Zeebrugge a Flemish game show on the telly proved pretty comprehensible.

    • This comment inspired me to seek out this short sketch on Youtube from a show by Eddie Izzard. Rather than his usual stage antics, which I love but I realise not all do, in this ‘episode’ he goes to Friesland to try and buy a cow using only Old English. It works, after a fashion. The thing which mainly startled me is that his Old English was good enough to try to converse in it! But yes: I can just about manage to follow Dutch if I read it out to myself. Off the page, though, not really.

  6. I didn’t find an Egbertsdóttir but did find an Albertsdóttir.

    You can guess where she comes from.

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