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An ancient rock crystal jar reveals its full beauty -- but keeps some secrets

Updated 18th December 2021
A rare rock crystal jar from the Viking era, part of the Galloway Hoard and pictured at the National Museum of Scotland.
Credit: Neil Hanna
An ancient rock crystal jar reveals its full beauty -- but keeps some secrets
Written by Jeevan Ravindran, CNN
A stunning gold-wrapped jar crafted out of rock crystal has finally been uncovered in its entirety, revealing a Latin inscription that might provide new clues about its mysterious origins.
Researchers at National Museums Scotland, where the Viking-Age vessel is being conserved, think the receptacle was probably used for religious purposes. And one expert believes it may have been a diplomatic gift from the Roman Empire to an Anglo-Saxon kingdom in Britain.
The treasure was discovered in southwest Scotland in 2014 and is part of the Galloway Hoard -- described in a press release as the "richest collection of rare and unique Viking-Age objects ever found in Britain or Ireland."
When the jar was first removed from the hoard, it was covered in textiles, meaning the team had 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.
The jar was initially found covered in textiles and had to undergo a conservation process.
The jar was initially found covered in textiles and had to undergo a conservation process. Credit: National Museums Scotland
Around 5 centimeters (2 inches) in height and resembling a perfume bottle, the jar's inscription states "Bishop Hygauld had me made." Researchers believe this is an indication it was made in the powerful Anglo-Saxon kingdom of Northumbria, in current-day northern England and southern Scotland.
"There are elements of the goldwork that are unlike anything we've seen in normal Anglo-Saxon goldwork," said Martin Goldberg, senior curator for the museum's early medieval and Viking collections.
"So there is still a question maybe about where it was made," he told CNN. "But the reason that we think Anglo Saxon England is because there is this inscription on the bottom."
Although the Galloway Hoard dates back to around 900 AD, this object is believed to be much older -- and Goldberg's theory is 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" -- before it was then converted into a jar and plated with gold.
His theory is informed by having seen similar objects in the Vatican's collection -- and by the knowledge that there were only two powers capable of using rock crystal in this way -- the Roman Empire and the Fatimid Caliphate of North Africa.
Detail on the jar.
Detail on the jar. Credit: Neil Hanna
"If the only known examples are in the Vatican collection, then the theory that we would want to pursue is: Is it a diplomatic gift from that collection?" he told CNN. "Are we seeing that sort of direct connection in the ninth century AD between early medieval Rome and Anglo-Saxon Northumbria?"
Although Goldberg and his colleagues are still researching the object's exact origins, they are unanimous on how exciting a discovery this is, with Goldberg calling it the "highlight of my career."
"This object is absolutely fascinating," said Leslie Webster, former keeper of Britain, prehistory and Europe at the British Museum, in a press release. "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."
The textiles the jar was wrapped in are currently being examined too -- so Goldberg hopes there will be more exciting discoveries to follow in the next two years.
Much of the Galloway Hoard is currently on display at Kirkcudbright Galleries, where some of it will stay in the long-term, while the rest is transferred to Edinburgh for display in the National Museum of Scotland.
This story has been updated to correct Martin Goldberg's name.