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13.01.2021

St Ninian's Isle Treasure

The St Ninian's Isle Treasure, found on St Ninian's Isle, Scotland in 1958 is the best example of the survival of silver metalwork from the early Middle Ages in Scotland. The treasure of 28 items includes a variety of silver metalwork, including twelve ring brooches. The treasure is now in the National Museum of Scotland.

The treasure consists of 28 silver and gilded silver objects from the second half of the eighth century. The objects can be grouped into categories related to feasting, jewelry and weapons. There are twelve silver cape brooches, eight silver bowls, one silver communion spoon, one silver knife, two silver chapels, one silver tip and three silver cones. The only non-silver item is a fragment of a guinea pig jaw. Some objects are thought to have been secular, such as ring brooches and various sword sheath tips. Other objects, including bowls, spoons and cones, may have been used in religious ceremonies or public rituals.

The brooches show a variety of typical Pictish forms, with geometric shapes both in the form of an animal head and with blades at the end. Two sheath chapels and sword tips appear to be Anglo-Saxon, probably made in Mercia in the late eighth century; one has an inscription with a prayer in Old English. Anglo-Saxon and Pictish rulers often exchanged gifts, and generally "weapons are among the items most widely used during the early medieval period."

The treasure was discovered on July 4, 1958, by schoolboy Douglas Coutts while excavating a medieval chapel on St. Ninian's Island. Coutts found the treasure in a wooden box that was buried under a slab marked with a cross. Coutts assisted visiting archaeologists under the direction of Professor Andrew Charles O'Dell of the University of Aberdeen. It is believed that the treasure was hidden under the floor of an earlier church. 

Professor O'Dell tells us in his December 1959 book Antiquity that:
"... the church on this site was described in the early 18th century as still venerated by the local population, although it was abandoned during the Reformation in favor of a more central parish church ... ... from the sand spit that formed between the mainland and the island, storms carried sand, and this, together with the accretion of the cemetery, which was in use until 1850, buried the remains of the church, and all knowledge of its exact location disappeared from the memory of the living ... On the occasion of the first Viking Congress in 1951, Dr. W. Douglas Simpson suggested that a search might prove useful, and this was undertaken in 1955 by a group of my students under my direction. The results of this and subsequent years exceeded expectations.

A medieval building with massive cement walls, a main altar and a side altar made the excavation noteworthy until July 4, 1958, when the treasure was discovered. Near the south altar. At the base of the arch, missed by later burials by several inches, was found a broken sandstone slab measuring 10.5 by 15 inches, lightly marked with a cross, and beneath it was the treasure. It was in a larch box, of which a few shards soaked in metal salts survived. The bowls had been turned over, and the brooches and other objects were mixed up, showing that they had been hastily moved and buried upside down. Along with the objects was the jaw of a porpoise, and this, the only non-metallic object, strongly suggests its ecclesiastical connection, although the brooches suggest a secular connection ... »
The treasure was donated to the National Antiquities Museum of Scotland from 1965-1965. And is now housed in the successor to the National Museum of Scotland in Edinburgh, with exact copies in the Shetland Museum.

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