Whatever was originally kept in this really cool and ancient container must have been extra special. Even without all the gold, this is no ordinary glass jar. The relic was painstakingly hand carved from a solid quartz crystal.
Clues to container origins
When researchers with Scotland’s National Museums came across the “stunning gold-wrapped jar crafted out of rock crystal” they were taking inventory of a Viking-Age vessel they are in the act of conserving.
The inscription carved on the container in Latin was their first clue that the Vikings weren’t the original owners. The bottle has since been unwrapped, cleaned and polished enough to read the lettering.
The team’s first observations indicate “the receptacle was probably used for religious purposes.” There is even a chance that “it may have been a diplomatic gift from the Roman Empire to an Anglo-Saxon kingdom in Britain.”
The container was discovered in southwest Scotland, back in 2014 and it’s part of the “Galloway Hoard,” known far and wide as the “richest collection of rare and unique Viking-Age objects ever found in Britain or Ireland.”
At first, the archaeologists had no idea what was wrapped up in fabric when they first pulled the container out of the hoard. Thanks to modern equipment, they were able to “conduct 3D X-ray imaging to gain a better picture of it before it underwent a conservation process allowing the coverings to be removed.” Conservators don’t do anything in a hurry.
“This object is absolutely fascinating,” declares Leslie Webster, former keeper of Britain, prehistory and Europe at the British Museum. “I’ve seen a lot of Anglo-Saxon finds over the years in my professional career, some of them amazing. But this absolutely knocks them all into a cocked hat.”
A religious art object
Once they got the container carefully unwrapped, they note that it measures about 2 inches high and looks a lot like a perfume bottle. Whatever it first held remains a mystery but according to the inscription, “Bishop Hygauld had me made.”
That leads the researchers to think “this is an indication it was made in the powerful Anglo-Saxon kingdom of Northumbria, in current-day northern England and southern Scotland.”
According to Martin Goldberg, senior curator for the museum’s early medieval and Viking collections, there “are elements of the goldwork that are unlike anything we’ve seen in normal Anglo-Saxon goldwork.” So if the crystal container wasn’t carved in UK, where did it come from?
“So there is still a question maybe about where it was made but the reason that we think Anglo Saxon England is because there is this inscription on the bottom.” The treasure trove under inspection dates back to around 900 AD. This “object is believed to be much older.” The big question is are we seeing a direct diplomatic connection “in the ninth century AD between early medieval Rome and Anglo-Saxon Northumbria?”
Professor Goldberg noticed that the container looks a lot like others which sit under heavy guard in the Vatican’s collection. Goldberg theorizes that “a notable individual from the Roman Empire gifted it to the Anglo-Saxons in the form of a Corinthian-style crystal column used for holding perfume or a liquid ‘of great value.'”
Sometime after that, it was “converted into a jar and plated with gold.” Backing that idea up, “there were only two powers capable of using rock crystal in this way — the Roman Empire and the Fatimid Caliphate of North Africa.”