During the Viking Age, gold was considerably scarcer than silver. It was therefore much more valuable, probably around 10-12 times silver’s value. Viking gold and silver objects were rarely deposited in hoards together, suggesting that silver and gold fulfilled different functions. Moreover, whereas silver objects were often fragmented to generate small sums of bullion, gold objects are normally found in a complete state. This has led to the view that gold objects such as arm- and neck-rings were worn as high-status jewellery items, or perhaps ritually deposited, while silver was more often a means of payment.
However, evidence from settlement finds is providing a fresh perspective on the economic use of gold. At the Viking winter camp of Torksey, Lincolnshire, several hack-gold fragments have been found, some with signs of cut marks, indicating they they had been cut from larger objects. A fake gold ingot (a copper-alloy ingot with a gilded exterior) is also known from the site. The presence of such a fake hints at the local use of gold in trade, as well as the presence of dodgy traders.
Of course, gold was still highly valuable. Even small amounts were carefully preserved. Another recent settlement find is a tiny gold ingot, found on the Viking-period farmstead in Old Lejre, Denmark. Given the size of the ingot, it's easy to see how it could have been dropped, and lost for good. Interestingly, the ingot still shows faint signs of hammer marks, which were sometimes applied to ingots in preparation for cutting into even smaller pieces. This shows that even very small quantities of gold carried a significant value.
Tiny gold ingot from Old Lejre, Denmark, scaled against one of my rings.
This emerging picture of gold use within the Viking bullion economy prompts a reassessment of the gold contained in hoards. Recent research by the leading Viking scholar James Graham-Campbell has shown that the (complete) rings contained within the gold hoard from Hoen, Norway, were weight-adjusted to the same unit of 100g. This would not be necessary if the rings were intended only to be worn, but would make sense if the rings were to be traded or stored as countable wealth. Complete gold rings may, then, have had more of a role within the bullion economy than has previously been realised. (For more on the Hoen hoard, see here)