Friday, 5 October 2012

Second-hand trade in Viking loot

Among recent detector-finds from England are rather odd-looking cruciform (cross-shaped) mounts. They are often broken, with various projecting arms, giving the impression of birds, as seen from above. They are decorated with interlace and triskele motifs (made of three interlocking spirals). From these designs, we can tell that they date to the eighth and early ninth centuries, and that they were probably made in Ireland, or perhaps in Irish communities in Scotland.

An Irish bridle mount recently found in Devon
(PAS 'Find-ID' CORN-29D1E2)
image courtesy of the PAS
When complete, the arms of mounts would have interlocked with the terminals from other mounts, and this is one way we can tell that they were supposed to be worn in sets. They seem to have been used as embellishments for horse bridles, specifically to cover the strap-unions.  Examples have been found in association with bridles, as well as horse skeletons, in Viking burials in Ireland and Norway. 

It's also clear, however, that mounts sometimes became separated from their set. Single mounts were often recycled to be used in other ways, for instance, as weights (see post below) or items of jewellery. The mount seen here from Devon occupies an intermediary position: it has been separated from its set, but not yet adapted for alternative use. These isolated mounts were clearly very popular among the Vikings: numerous examples have been found in the Scandinavian homelands, as well as in regions associated with Viking activity in Britain. 
Why they were so popular, when they couldn't be used for their original purpose, is an interesting question. Since the mounts were made in Ireland, it's likely that many items were seized as loot during Viking raids on Ireland the west coast of Scotland in the eighth and ninth centuries. Although they are not made of precious metal, they are highly decorative. They probably held symbolic value, serving to associate their owners with the prestige and wealth gained through raiding activity in the West. 

Irish mounts and other artefacts recovered from the River Blackwater.
ht Ulster Museum
Connections with raiding activity (if that's what they did symbolise) didn't have to be earned: they could also be bought. The widespread distribution of these finds, in both Britain and Scandinavia, suggests that such pieces were widely available, and this hints at an intensive second-hand trade in looted material. This is supported by the discovery of such loot at prominent Scandinavian market sites, including Kaupang, Norway, and Birka, Sweden, as well as by the fragmentary metalwork and offcuts, including enamels and bridle mounts, found along with Scandinavian-type silver in the River Blackwater at Shanmullagh, Ireland. This assemblage may have been the spoil of a Viking raid on the nearby Armagh monastery in 895. It has been interpreted as the ‘stock-in-trade’ of a Hiberno-Viking metal-worker or merchant, perhaps en route to a market place in Scandinavia or the Danelaw when it was lost or deposited.