Friday, 1 February 2013

Ring bling: a huge Viking gold arm-ring from Yorkshire

This massive gold arm-ring captures a number of features of the Viking bullion economy. It is now on display in Yorkshire museum, and during a recent research visit, I had a chance to study it. This post is about how the ring was made, how it functioned, and who may have owned it.

A huge gold arm-ring, now in Yorkshire Museum. The ring functioned both as an item of jewellery and a store of bullion. Photo copyright York Museums Trust (Yorkshire Museum) 
The ring is one of the most impressive pieces of Viking bullion from England, but it's construction is actually quite simple. To make it, a craftsman took two tapering gold rods and two thin twisted gold wires, and twisted them all together*. (It is thus called a twisted-rod arm-ring - other types of arm-ring could be plaited or made of just one rod). The ends were then joined in a polyhedral knob and bound on either side by gold wire.  One of the ends has been cut and the ring straightened, probably in modern times, as the ring is otherwise complete. It has, however, been tested for its gold content: there is a small nick towards the terminal on the outer angle of one of the rods.

The crescent-shaped mark seen here was made with the edge of a
knife to test the gold content of the ring
Photo copyright York Museums Trust (Yorkshire Museum)
This ring encapsulates the versatile nature of the Viking bullion economy. Not only was it clearly an impressive item of jewellery, which would have created quite an impact when worn, it was also effectively a store of wealth, and could be traded whole or in fragments for payment when necessary. The nick was designed to test the quality of the gold - a positive sign that the ring was treated as bullion at some point during its lifetime. The use of twisted rods also acted as a guarantee that the gold was real gold, and not plated base metal, because base metals (e.g. copper) would not be soft or flexible enough to twist. The tester of this ring would have been satisfied with the results. Analysis at the British Museum has shown that the ring is 95% gold.

So, who wore an arm-ring like this? Naturally, someone very wealthy. The ring is 325g of gold: this would have been a huge sum, probably equivalent to several hundreds of thousands of pounds today. The exact findspot of the ring is not known (it was found during construction work and only reported after the finder’s death) but it’s thought to have come from the York area. York and its surrounding region was a Viking kingdom from the late 9th century until c. 954, and had close links with Viking Dublin. A number of early 10th century Viking silver hoards have been found in the area, suggesting a concentration of wealth in Scandinavian hands. One of these hoards, from the Vale of York, also has a gold ring, although much lighter than this one (have a look here)A pair of twisted gold-rod arm-rings has also been found in Dublin, and these are very similar in style to the York area ring.

In the sagas, gold rings are sometimes given by kings to members of their retinue as a reward for military service. One saga also describes King Cnut giving gold rings to his court poets. My guess would be that the arm-ring from 'near York' belonged to a high-status Scandinavian (male or female) with links to York or Dublin, in the late ninth or early tenth century. But I doubt the arm-ring saw much wear. It was perhaps only worn at public events for maximum impact – at the court of the Viking kings of York, for instance, or at public feasts.

* correction: the ring is actually made of two gold rods and one, thinner, beaded wire - see comment below. 


  1. Hi,

    sorry this is a little off topic, and I know you specialise in viking and this is saxon, but I'm trying to figure out if the rivets on this fibula are a feature or a repair?

  2. Hello. I'm really enjoying your blog but I have to take exception with one part of this article. While I have no idea how many arm rings were made of copper (though apparently quite a few finger rings were made of bronze). I can tell you it is absolutely possible to make large heavy twisted arm rings from copper. As a Jeweler with 16 years experience, I have over the last year or so made a hobby of replicating scandinavian style twisted wire jewelry. I have made several bracelets of both copper and bronze, and if properly annealed I've found it nearly as easy as silver to manipulate. Copper has been used in vessel raising and other crafts requiring metals with a high degree of flexibility for a very long time.

  3. Thanks for this - I'm really pleased to know this and will certainly take it into account. There are simple bracelets in copper-alloy, which occur in graves, although they are normally not twisted. But bronze finger-rings are often twisted to close the terminals - presumably the width/ bulk is an important factor? Plated gold/ silver Viking jewellery (ie. with a copper-alloy core) is very rare, but it must have originally been more common than surviving examples suggest - hence the need for nicking.

  4. Jane I am interested in evidence of tool marks (tools used) on metal work like this. In the close up of the twist there appears to be parallel lines following the contour of the major bars. Could this be left by tools used to twist the bars? Maybe files or burnishers to finish the bars?

  5. Hello,

    You mentioned that the embellishing wire is made of, " two thin twisted gold wires".

    We can see it in your images as well as this high res image,

    that the embellishing wire isn't made from twisting two wires together, but one heavier gauge wire that has been textured to look like "beaded" wire.

    Both these papers talk about the techniques used:

    1. Yes, you are right - thank you for the correction. It's interesting to see this technique in the Essu hoard pendants, given that these display Western European influence, although are clearly Scandinavian products - this may help us to understand the context of manufacture of this ring.

      Ester Oras discusses the Essu pendants, including a detailed treatment of their manufacturing techniques, in a forthcoming article (in a volume called Silver, Butter, Cloth: Monetary and Social Economies in the Viking Age, which I am editing together with Gareth Williams).

      Thanks again!