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06.05.2021

Migdale Hoard

In May 1900, a group of workers were working on a hillside above a lake. Cutting into a crack in the rock, one of the workers felt something. Something that didn't look like a rock, a plant, or a spider. What he found was quite remarkable, and the last person to see it had been dead for the better part of four thousand years. Piece by piece, the workers were retrieving the objects. There was a bronze hatchet, some jewelry, including bracelets or anklets, six jacket buttons, and items that may once have been attached to a headdress. They may well have been in a bag that has since rotted away. Except for the buttons, everything was made of bronze. When the buttons were analyzed, scientists found that five of them were made of charcoal or slate, and the sixth was made of gagate. Such a plane is not found in Sutherland; this one was found near Whitby in Yorkshire. It was sold from 450 miles away.

These objects, elaborately worked pieces of precious bronze and a button, brought from a great distance, were of high value. They must have belonged to a very important person. Wearing the objects demonstrated that the owner could spend money on skilled craftsmen and access to extensive trade networks. They were an expression of power and prestige as well as beauty. How did such valuable objects, perhaps belonging to a military and political leader of this part of eastern Sutherland, end up in a crack in the rock?

Sometimes such treasures seem to be hidden. It is quite possible that Sutherland in 2000 B.C. was not a peaceful place. Perhaps the items were hidden during war or raids to keep them out of enemy hands. Perhaps the owner intended to return for them, but was killed in battle, captured, or enslaved. Archaeologists at the National Museum of Scotland believe that the treasure ended up in the rock for an entirely different reason. The items are believed to have been gifted to the gods. Perhaps the local community needed something from the gods: perhaps they had experienced hunger, illness, or attacks. Perhaps they thought that an offering of the most valuable items the community possessed would convince the gods to ease their suffering or give them something good: perhaps victory in battle, perhaps a good harvest. Perhaps it was a sign of contrition for the evil done. It is impossible to guess what these objects symbolized or why they were hidden. But the objects do tell us a little about Sutherland of the Bronze Age.

The lode tells us that the inhabitants of Migdale four thousand years ago were far from isolated. There were clearly trade links with Yorkshire. Perhaps traders sailed to the east coast to sell their wares, or perhaps they traveled on foot, or perhaps objects were passed from person to person, and gradually the button of a jet plane fell into the hands of a chief in the far north. The remains of the headdress and axe show how connected the population was with Europe. Their design echoes the fashions of Central Europe. This is consistent with other archaeological evidence we have that tells us there were connections between northeastern Scotland and Central Europe.

One hundred years ago workers brought their precious find down the hill. It was sent to Edinburgh for study, and can still be seen on display there.

UP