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A Golden Bird

May/June 2022

Galloway Scotland Gold Bird PinAmong the Galloway Hoard’s many surprises was a trio of rare gold objects that had been placed in a wooden box and concealed within a cluster of four silver Viking arm rings. This mini-hoard consisted of an ingot, a ring, and a finely crafted bird-shaped pin. On first glance, the bird resembles a flamingo—it has a large, curved beak, and the thinness of the pin’s shaft is reminiscent of the flamingo’s long, spindly legs. However, other features are depicted less accurately, which is understandable given that the craftsperson who made the object had likely never seen a flamingo—the nearest specimens would have lived hundreds of miles away along the shores of the Mediterranean Sea.

 

According to Martin Goldberg, principal curator of medieval archaeology and history at National Museums Scotland, the bird may not have been intended to represent a flamingo at all, but instead the mythical phoenix. “There’s a connection in the ancient world between the flamingo and the phoenix,” Goldberg says. This likely stems from the flamingo’s ability, like that of the phoenix, to survive in hot, inhospitable climates. “Obviously, a phoenix doesn’t exist, so people had to piece together what they thought it would look like using the characteristics of a flamingo,” he adds.

 

The phoenix was commonly associated with gold, fire, the rising sun, and rebirth. Ancient mythological lore held that the bird was periodically reborn, a characteristic that Anglo- Saxon Christians used as an allegory for Christ’s resurrection. This small pin may have been valued for its gold—and as an emblem of Christian faith.

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