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 (the Hoen hoard, pictured below, contains 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.

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