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11.01.2021

Aberdeenshire hoard

During the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries many antiquities were discovered and destroyed by processes of agricultural improvement and expansion, and their discovery was often underreported. As a result, although these treasures are often on public display, we know relatively little about them compared to the levels of information obtained in modern excavations. Here we emphasize the potential of re-examining antiquarian finds for research purposes using modern research methods to obtain information that would otherwise be lacking for so many older finds. This article describes a project in which a Pictish silver hoard at Holcross, Aberdeenshire, was rediscovered. Only three items survived from the original 1838 discovery, but field research in the spring of 2013 uncovered 100 new silver finds: late Roman coins and military equipment, personal jewelry, including brooches and bracelet fragments, bullion and Huxilbert parcels (cut, bent and broken silver, often found in hoards - see Hunter and Painter 2013 for a more detailed definition ). New field research has shown that the Halcross hoard was much larger than previously thought, and is now the northernmost (pre-Viking era) huxilber hoard in Europe and one of only two comparable hoards known in Scotland. The discussion here focuses on the composition of the hoard, its date, and the possibilities for understanding the nature of society in northern Britain during the Late Roman and Post-Roman periods.

The Galcross hoard was discovered in 1838 at Ley Farm in Aberdeenshire, northeast Scotland, in a field containing two stone circles. In 1837, James Loughty obtained a lease on a farm in Holcross and began to improve the land. The stone circles were ruthlessly removed and some stones were blown up with dynamite. Only one monolith of the north circle was still standing at the time of John Stewart's first description of the hoard. He indicates that the silver hoard was found on the south side of the northern circle among the boulders of the circular pyramid. Stewart confirms that other "pins and brooches" were found, but illustrates only three objects. These three surviving objects from the original discovery are a hand pin (so called because of its resemblance to a clenched fist), a spiral bracelet, and a piece of silver chain. These were donated by the landowner Sir Robert Abercrombie to the Banff Museum in Aberdeenshire and are now on loan and on display at the National Museum of Scotland in Edinburgh (Stevenson & Emery 1964 ). Reverend William Cramond also reported that the treasure was found south of the remaining monolith, which was on the west side of the north circle. Echoing Stuart, Cramond suggested that there were other pins, buckles, and brooches in the hoard.

Now Galcross is an intensively cultivated arable field in rural Aberdeenshire; nothing is visible from the stone circles. In the spring of 2013, two projects in Scotland teamed up to investigate the hoard site. The Northern Picts Project (established in 2012) at the University of Aberdeen, a field initiative targeting key Picts sites in northern Scotland, and the Glenmorangie Research Project at National Museums Scotland (established in 2008), which promotes material culture approaches to the study of early medieval Scotland. The initial goal of this collaborative venture was to see if new contextual information could be provided for an important antiquarian find in Halcross. Field work began with geophysical surveys. Metal detecting was also planned to determine the extent to which the hoard was recovered by antiquities and to identify any additional small fragments of the hoard that may have been missed by the first searchers. On the second day, Alistair McPherson, a local metal detector working on the project, found three silver coins (Roman silver coins of the fourth and fifth centuries AD), pieces of folded huxilbert, the silver end of a strap, and part of a silver bracelet.

Thanks to these early successes, the project intensified as the field was to be plowed and seeded within a week. Geophysical surveys were extended over an area of 31500 m 2 but showed little, so the approach quickly focused on metal detection. Results were plotted using differential GPS (dGPS) providing an accurate 3D record. Over the next three days, the metal detector allowed a scatter of finds to be mapped, and a large trench was opened over the most concentrated area. The trench was opened in two stages: first, about half of the plowed soil was removed so that different levels could be searched. The plowed soil was about 0.3 m deep, with metal detectors penetrating to a maximum depth of about 0.2 m. Subsequently, the trench was cleared, planned, and the position of the objects was recorded. Careful excavation showed that all of the finds were in modern plowing. A smaller trench was also uncovered at the recorded location of the last standing stone of the North Stone Circle of Halcross.

A small number of pieces were discovered during the March 21-25, 2013 excavation phase, but none of them can be directly related to the silver finds. The boulders found in area B may have been part of a circular pyramid of a stone circle; a number of stone slabs were also found. Several prehistoric features were identified, one from the Early Neolithic and another from the Middle Bronze Age (1670-1500 BC). The latter is presumably related to the creation or use of the stone circle, but no other traces of it have been found; The agricultural improvement of Louti and his workers was comprehensive.

Excavations were conducted only after each area had been thoroughly examined by detectors. Subsequent discovery of dumps and additional visits showed that almost all artifacts were found by this method. Over the next 18 months Alistair McPherson repeatedly discovered the deposits to make sure all the silver had been recovered. Subsequent discovery yielded 14 additional finds, again all in topsoil, widely scattered around the edges of the main scatter of artifacts excavated in the spring of 2013. Indeed, further discovery and an additional trench opened in September 2014 yielded no new finds or features of significance.

Reports from antiquarians suggest that the treasure was only at a shallow depth from the surface, "found between two rocks," , and all recent finds have been within modern plowing. It seems likely that the spread of the Hacksilber fragments began during the extensive field improvements in 1838 that led to the original discovery, and that subsequent plowing led to further dispersal of the silver. The lack of surviving evidence of the stone circle and the destruction of the circle stones indicate vigorous improvements and intensive plowing since that time. Many small fragments of Hacksilber and other items were missed or scattered before the treasure was discovered by the first searchers. Careful mapping of the finds with dGPS in three dimensions will allow subsequent studies of the distribution and survival of the hoard material in the plowed soil.

New field investigations at Galcross have completely changed our understanding of the extent and nature of this hoard. One hundred new silver objects were discovered: mostly small fragments of sheet silver, broken fragments of objects, and, occasionally, more diagnostic and undamaged objects. We have confirmed that the three surviving objects were part of the larger Huxilber Hoard, similar to the only other comparable hoard known in Scotland: the Law of Norrie hoard of Fife. The large silver pins found in both have always linked the two hoards, but the new finds from Halcross have more recognizable late Roman objects than the Norrie Law hoard, such as carved fragments of dishes, spoon handles, and belt/strap ends. There are also cut silicones, a British phenomenon that involves removing the edges of fourth-century Roman silver coins to increase the dwindling supply of silver in the fifth century AD, when coins were no longer imported into Britain. Not all objects from Galcross have been broken into. Intact jewelry includes a crescent/crescent-shaped pendant with two double loops at either end, possibly for hanging from a double-link small chain, and two hemispheres that may originally have formed a single ornament, possibly a hollow spherical bead or pinhead.

A number of finds are unique or very rare. For example, only one confirmed silver bullion was previously known from Pictland, from excavations at the Clutchard-Craig site (Close-Brooks 1986 ). The Halcross hoard includes two different types of ingots: D-shaped ingots and rectangular ingots, comparable to those found in other Hacksilber hoards, such as those from Coleraine, Northern Ireland (Marzinzik 2013). The contents of the Halcross and Norrie Law hoards call into question our contemporary categorization of Roman and "Native" / "Picts" identity. The fragments of two permanent brooches from the Galcross hoard are types of objects widely used in late Roman and early medieval Britain and Ireland, but these objects cover a period of that historical transition. One is the flattened end of a ring brooch with a twisted hoop, which can only be found in the Norrie Law hoards. The other is a significant portion of a small zoomorphic F-type ring brooch. They are rare in both form and material. Until the recent discovery of Galcross, looped Norrie law rings were unique; and although the zoomorphic bronze ring brooch is much more common in Great Britain and Ireland, it is very unusual in silver.

Much of the Hacksilber comes from bracelets of various shapes, widths, and diameters, crushed, folded, and sometimes assembled into packages. This is an additional parallel to the many similar fragments found in the Norrie Law hoard. Two of the Gallcross bracelet bundles had late Roman-era silicones sandwiched between the end and the fold. The cultural origin of these bracelets (Roman or local) will be a key question for future research. Further analytical study of the objects in both hoards will undoubtedly reveal much about the transition from Late Antiquity to the Early Middle Ages in this part of northern Europe.

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