Thursday, 7 August 2014

The sources of Viking gold

It is frequently said that the Viking Age was a Silver Age. But archaeological discoveries ranging from hoards to workshop waste show that the Vikings also had occasional access to gold (see earlier blog entries here and here). Neither silver nor gold was mined within Scandinavia during the Viking period, and thus both metals had to be imported. We know that Arabic dirhams were a major source of silver fuelling the Viking silver economy. But where did Viking gold come from?

The Vikings probably derived most of their gold from Migration-period hoards
such as this one, recently discovered in a bog on Jutland, Denmark
(image © National Museum of Denmark)
The principal source was probably pre-Viking goldwork, itself derived from Late Roman and early Byzantine gold coins. From the 5th to early sixth centuries AD (the so-called Migration Period), huge quantities of gold objects, including bracteates, rings, ingots and brooches, were deposited in hoards in Scandinavia. According to archaeologist Lotte Hedeager, the weight of such gold discovered in Denmark alone amounts to over 50 kg (with the Hoen hoard containing c. 2.59 kg). Migration-period gold was frequently deposited in areas of fertile agricultural land. It's thus possible that, several hundred years later, people occasionally came across these caches, melting down and reworking the gold objects into contemporary artefact forms, such as twisted arm- and neck-rings.

The Hoen hoard contains a number of items of imported gold
(such as the trefoil mount), as well as indigenous Scandinavian artefact
types (such as the neck and arm-rings).
But some gold was also imported into Scandinavia during the Viking Age. A gold treasure discovered in Hoen, southern Norway, provides a glimpse of some of the gold objects that came into Viking hands in the ninth century. They include a three-armed mount from a Carolingian sword-belt (transformed into a brooch by the addition of a pin), an Anglo-Saxon gold finger-ring (roughly in the centre of the picture), and a mix of gold coins, including Arabic dinars, and Carolingian and Byzantine issues, which had been pierced and worn as pendants on a necklace. These items were preserved in their original form, but others would have been melted down to fashion new ornaments in a Scandinavian style.

The jury is out on how exactly these gold objects were acquired. Some could have been obtained through trade or travel, but it’s perhaps more likely that most objects were seized during Viking raids in Western Europe, possibly being sold on at a market within Scandinavia. Most of the imported gold in the Hoen hoard has an immediate Western European source. This is true even for the gold Arabic coins, the date range and wear patterns of which suggest that they probably reached Norway via the Carolingian Empire, rather than following the same eastern route (via Russia and the Baltic) as Arabic silver dirhams. Indeed, there is, surprisingly, very little evidence for the import of gold dinars along with silver dirhams via these easterly routes. Why this should be so is fertile ground for further study!


The exact function of this ninth-century gold terminal is unclear. Gold items like this are rare survivals, but documentary sources suggest gold was more common than the small number of extant finds suggests. PAS 'Find-ID' WAW-92EB56 (image © Warwickshire Museum)


It may seem odd that the Vikings could obtain gold from their raids in the West, as gold survivals of the ninth century are uncommon in these areas. One, rare survival discovered in Warwickshire just over a decade ago is this tiny polyhedral gold terminal with geometric niello inlays. Yet documentary evidence suggest that gold was more widely available than the limited number of extant finds suggests. Anglo-Saxon charters make frequent reference to land being purchased with gold (in various forms), while wills show that people bequeathed gold ornaments, as well as bullion. A vivd example of a Viking acquisition of gold is preserved in a Gospel Book known as the Codex Aureus. This carries an inscription relating how, in the early ninth century, an English nobleman and his wife paid a ransom ‘with pure money, that was with pure gold’ in order to recover the manuscript from the clutches of a Viking Army.

Monday, 20 January 2014

Elite Viking Gold and Silver Jewellery from England

In recent years, metal-detecting in England has yielded hundreds of items of female Scandinavian jewellery dated to the Viking Age. Most of these objects are modest, mass-produced brooches and pendants in base metals (copper- and lead-alloys): more Topshop than Prada. But occasionally we get glimpses of jewellery at the other end of the social spectrum.

For the Vikings, filigree and granulation jewellery was the ultimate symbol of wealth and status.  These pieces used twisted and beaded wires (filigree) and small granules (granulation) in silver or gold to create incredibly elaborate brooches and pendants. Most surviving examples are in silver, but in 2013, a gold brooch came to light in Norfolk, part of the area settled by Scandinavians in England.


Gold filigree and granulation brooch, found in Norfolk
(PAS 'Find-ID' NMS-73CD11), copyright PAS
This lozenge-shaped brooch is made of sheet gold, obtained by hammering out and annealing a gold ingot. It has a flat back-plate and a convex front plate; these have been soldered together, creating a hollow middle. The filigree and granulation decoration applied to the front is based on 4 outward-facing animal heads as seen from above (best seen on the lowermost terminal), arranged around a central cross-like feature. This Borre-style design is a fairly common one on Scandinavian brooches and mounts, and means that the brooch can be dated to the late ninth or tenth century.

Viking gold jewellery is exceptionally rare, even within Scandinavia, making it likely that this piece was owned or worn by a woman of very high rank. But at the same time, it’s clear that this brooch is not the highest quality workmanship. Normally in filigree and granulation jewellery, the granules are the same size, but on this brooch, they are unevenly sized and spaced. Just look at the eyes of the lowermost animal head: the left one is far bigger than the right. The scrolls of the filigree wires are also loose and asymmetrical, and, in some parts, they fail to form the intended design. In short, this has a very amateurish (even shoddy?) feel and that it should be in such a rare and valuable precious metal is therefore perplexing. The brooch seems to have been worn a lot, because the beading on the filigree has been rubbed smooth in places. Is this an early example of an underdeveloped goldsmithing technique? Or does it suggest that there was a much wider spectrum of gold jewellery than the very fine surviving examples (almost all from hoards) suggest?


A silver disc brooch, cast in deep relief and with notching
in imitation of filigree (copyright North Lincolnshire Museum)
This is the only known Viking gold brooch from England, but there are hints that such sumptuous jewellery was more common than the few extant artefacts suggest. There is one further complete filigree and granulation piece of jewellery: a pendant in the shape of a bearded man's head, found in Yorkshire and now in the British Museum. In addition, a few cast silver brooches from England imitate filigree and granulation designs, suggesting that metalworkers had access to such jewellery to use as models. The gilded silver brooch from Lincolnshire shown above is one such example. It emulates filigree, both in the 'notching' of its cast bands and in its unusual deep-casting. 

A couple of artefacts even point to the manufacture of elite Scandinavian jewellery in England. One is this bird-shaped copper-alloy die, found in Lincolnshire. It would have been used to create silver or gold sheets, applied to a pendant back-plate and used as a base for filigree and granulation work. A lead patrix for creating moulds for dies of this type is also known from York.
A copper-alloy die for making precious-metal bird-shaped pendants,
found in Lincolnshire (PAS 'Find-ID' NLM-690F57), copyright PAS
No finished pendants of this type survive in England, but similar bird-pendants were found in the nineteenth century in a famous Viking gold hoard from Hiddensee. The location of Hiddensee, off the Baltic coast of Germany, suggests that the hoard may have been deposited by wealthy Danes en-route between Denmark and the central Baltic.

While actual filigree and granulation gold and silver jewellery is rare in England, a number of different strands of evidence converge to suggest that it was probably more common than the existing archaeological evidence suggests. The new gold brooch from Norfolk is the latest and strongest evidence yet for the availability of such jewellery on this side of the North Sea, and, in turn, for the presence of very high-status Scandinavians in England during the Viking Age.



Tuesday, 17 September 2013

From Russia (with love)

During the Viking Age, vast quantities of Islamic silver flowed into Scandinavia via Russian markets. Much of the silver arrived in the form of coins, known as dirhams, but one type of silver object was also imported from the East.  This is the so-called ‘Permian’ ring, named after the region of the Perm in Russia (west of the Ural mountains, in the Kama river basin) where finds of its type are concentrated. We do not know where, exactly, these rings were made, or who made them. It’s likely, however, that they were acquired, alongside dirhams, by Scandinavian merchants in Russia, in exchange for commodities such as slaves and furs.

A 'Permian' arm-ring from Sweden, with heart-shaped hook. Photographed in the National Museum, Stockholm (© Jane Kershaw)
Permian rings are visually distinctive, and therefore easy to identify among the many different forms of Viking silver. They are made from a thick round silver rod and are decorated with spiral grooves towards the terminals (they are sometimes described as having a ‘corded’ appearance). Typically, one end has a hook and the other end a facetted knob - I particularly like this example from Öland, Sweden, with a heart-shaped hook. From this construction we can tell that Permian rings were originally made to fasten, and were probably designed as neck-rings.  However, most surviving examples (like the one pictured) have been wound two or three times. This probably just made them more convenient to store and transport, but it’s also possible they were adopted for use as arm-rings.

An important feature of Permian arm-rings is that they were manufactured to fixed weight standards, based on multiples of 100g. The heaviest rings, weighing 400g, are found only in Russia, while in the Baltic and Scandinavia most rings are smaller and lighter, weighing either 100 or 200g. This weight adjustment suggests that Permian rings functioned as large units of currency, a bit like a £1000 bank note. Interestingly, the Russian term for a 50g unit is grivna, which also means ‘neck-ring’.

Permian rings were probably made from melted-down dirhams, hundreds of thousands of which reached Russia (as well as the Baltic, and Scandinavia) as a result of Islamic trade with markets along the Russian river network. The fact that the heaviest rings are found in the east suggests that silver here was more plentiful than further west. It’s likely that large units of currency were well suited to the type of bulk trade, for instance, in raw goods and slaves, taking place in Russia. 

Cut fragment from a Permian arm-ring, found in Lincolnshire.
Photograph by me (© Fitzwilliam Museum, Cambridge)
Within Scandinavia, Permian rings are found mainly on the Baltic islands of Öland and Gotland, and in Denmark. Here, in southern Scandinavia, local versions of Permian rings were also produced: these have the same striations on the ring body, but they are generally thinner and lighter (50 or 100g), with two simple, hooked ends. No complete arm-rings of Permian or southern Scandinavian type are known from Britain, but a number of fragments have been recorded, for instance, in the famous Cuerdale hoard from Lancashire. Very occasionally, they also turn up as metal-detector finds. I photographed this new discovery during a recent research visit to the Fitzwilliam Museum, Cambridge. Its thickness indicates that it is a Permian type. It has been deliberately cut, and thus represents a piece of ‘hack-silver’, almost certainly to be used as a means of payment in a metal-weight economy.

So, we know quite a lot about the character of these finds, and how and where they were used. But their origins remain something of a mystery. The fact that they are associated with dirhams, and were made to fixed weights, may suggest an Arab origin, since accurate weight systems were a feature of the Islamic Caliphates. But the weight units also reflect the Russian grivna, and most rings are found in this, northern region. My guess would be that they were made by Russian merchants, perhaps in one of the great market places on the River Volga.

Wednesday, 24 July 2013

Trust in metal-weight exchange: the role of weights



How did Viking merchants know whether or not to trust their trading partner? For coin users like us, value is guaranteed by a central political authority (as well as our perception that the coin is not a forgery).  But in a bullion or metal-weight system, there was no equivalent of the Bank of England. Imagine a scenario in which a trader from Norway agreed a sale with a trader from Scandinavian England. Who decided which weight standards to use, and the degree of accuracy achieved in the weighing of silver? Why would you trust the scales and weights of someone you didn't know, and probably wouldn't meet again?

One way of ensuring trust in metal-weight transactions across different trading communities was to use standardised weights based on established weight units. By using a widely known, visually distinct and, most importantly, reliable weight type, a trader could help to boost confidence in their trading credentials. Like the picture of the queen on a bank note, standardised weights provided visual cues that added credibility to a transaction.


A cubo-octahedral weight from Yorkshire, with 4 dots.
Copyright: J Kershaw
In the Viking Age, there were two main types of standardised, or regulated weight associated with the weighing of silver: oblate-spheroid weights, which I wrote about here, and a second type, called cubo-octahedrals. These are copper-alloy weights in the shape of a cube with facetted corners (for which reason, they are sometimes described as 'dice' weights). These two different weight types were based around a common weight unit and could therefore be used together. But whereas oblate-spheroid weights weigh between 7 and 150g, cubo-octahedrals are much lighter, typically weighing between 0.75 and 4g.

For standardised weights to be effective, they must be visually recognisable and have a consistent weight, which is not easily falsified. This is certainly the case for cubo-octahedrals, which are distinguished by the appearance of 1 to 6 punched dots of their six square sides (and sometimes, as on this example, a single dot on the smaller, triangular surfaces). The purpose of these dots has been debated. Some have interpreted the dots as representing the position of the weight within a set. But this seems unlikely to me. For a start, the dots number 1, 2, 3, 4 or 6, but never 5. There is also emerging evidence that the number of dots relates to the weight of the item. Each dot appears to represent approx. 0.75g, meaning that a weight with, say, three dots will weigh in the region of 2.25g (3 x 0.75). Weights that have survived into the present day may be corroded, which can make it difficult to determine their original weight. This weight above, with four dots, weighs 2.61, which is close to the proposed target of 3g (4 x 0.75). In principle, I think it's fair to say that cubo-octahedrals wear their weight on their sleeve. A 'fake' would be easy to spot when handled, or when placed on the scale.

Map of cubo-octahedral weights (excluding those found at the Viking winter camp sites of Torksey (Lincs) and 'ARSNY'). The size of the diamond is scaled to the number of weights.

For interested colleagues, this is an updated version of Steuer's often reprinted map from 1997, showing all weights known to me as of March 2013. Copyright: J Kershaw
In order to be trusted by traders in different markets, standardised weights also had to cross national borders. Indeed, both Viking-Age types are found across the Scandinavian world, including in England. The map above shows that cubo-octahedral weights are found from Russia to Ireland, with many finds from the Danelaw (the area of northern and eastern England settled by the Scandinavians in the ninth century). However, the overall density of finds is rather different. Whereas in Scandinavia, the weights are found in large numbers at urban and market centres (the larger diamonds on the map), in England the distribution is more rural, and single finds are the norm. Somewhat surprisingly, there are no known clusters from Viking towns such as York or Lincoln. Why this is the case is an open question, but it is clear that cubo-octahedrals were in regular use by Scandinavian settlers in the rural Danelaw. They probably used them mainly to trade with each other, and perhaps occasionally with merchants from the Scandinavian homelands.