Tuesday, 21 August 2012

Viking gold bullion

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)


  1. Hi Jane, welcome to the blogging world. Don't be discouraged by the lack of comments, it took me about a year to get any... I shall plug this blog at mine shortly, I have a big links round-up due to go up soon. As for this post, metrology generally makes my head hurt but I wonder how you think the unit weights that seem to be implied in the Hoen hoard were being agreed upon. Who was the Standards Association here? And how far could such a system have functioned without such a consensus? (I freely admit I'm wrestling with similar questions for Galicia just now, though with cows, not gold, which are harder to manufacture at preset weights...)

    Jonathan Jarrett

  2. Hi Jon,
    Thanks for posting! That's a really interesting question, and one to which there is no easy answer.

    The rings in the Hoen hoard seem to have been influenced by a pre Viking-Age western system based on a Carolingian standard (30 denars = c51g, according to Charlemagne's reforms). We can tell this because they date to a period before eastern weight units made a big impact (the mid/late ninth century), and because the hoard has Frankish elements which suggest a western connection.

    There is also an eastern system based on the Russia grivna, which is itself based on a unit derived from Arabic dirhams. The interesting thing is that the grivna (which means neck-ring) is also c50g, suggesting a desire to sync with other weight systems in use.

    In Britain and Ireland, slightly different weight systems have been proposed based on 24g (from Scandinavia) and 26.6g (Hiberno-Norse Dublin/ Ireland).

    Who's controlling these standards is unclear. In large mixed hoards such as Cuerdale, the material shows correlations with multiple weight systems, which is to be expected given that the artefacts will have been sourced in different places, over a long time period. I think the key is that in each transaction, both parties had to agree to the weight using whatever system they were familiar with, hence the need to personal weight sets. This would be a bit laborious: you'd have to weight everything twice. But there's also some suggestion that they didn't care *that* much about slight variations of, say, a gram or so. Although Viking-Age scales are very precise, mould-duplicate silver ingots show some variation in weight, suggesting weight units were aimed at, but variation tolerated.

    The Vikings also had things to say about cows and exchange, but that is another post!

    All the best,


  3. interesting article - it does seem tiny though, I've got bits of scrap in my workshop bigger than that!

  4. Fascinating story. Is the fake gold ingot from Torksey something like this one from Ukraine?: http://www.pbase.com/image/151745990

  5. I've heard the story floated that a lot of the small silver ingots found were the personal hoards used by individual scandinavians to make things out of during the winter, like rings. They wouldn't be so standard then.

    I think the punched up silver and silver wire may represent a type of standard that jarls and thanes may have had, That puched silver was a certain fineness and was therefore readily tradeable like coins.

  6. Hi If you check on east coast searchers you will. See a photo. Of a 9 CT gold base ingot weighing the same as 2 staters found in Suffolk. It is currently with the Flo anne booth have a look as I'd be very interested in knowing more

    Kind regards

    John Mitchell

  7. Super, thanks. I'll keep an eye out for it on the PAS database!