Tuesday, 17 September 2013

From Russia (with love)

During the Viking Age, vast quantities of Islamic silver flowed into Scandinavia via Russian markets. Much of the silver arrived in the form of coins, known as dirhams, but one type of silver object was also imported from the East.  This is the so-called ‘Permian’ ring, named after the region of the Perm in Russia (west of the Ural mountains, in the Kama river basin) where finds of its type are concentrated. We do not know where, exactly, these rings were made, or who made them. It’s likely, however, that they were acquired, alongside dirhams, by Scandinavian merchants in Russia, in exchange for commodities such as slaves and furs.

A 'Permian' arm-ring from Sweden, with heart-shaped hook. Photographed in the National Museum, Stockholm (© Jane Kershaw)
Permian rings are visually distinctive, and therefore easy to identify among the many different forms of Viking silver. They are made from a thick round silver rod and are decorated with spiral grooves towards the terminals (they are sometimes described as having a ‘corded’ appearance). Typically, one end has a hook and the other end a facetted knob - I particularly like this example from Öland, Sweden, with a heart-shaped hook. From this construction we can tell that Permian rings were originally made to fasten, and were probably designed as neck-rings.  However, most surviving examples (like the one pictured) have been wound two or three times. This probably just made them more convenient to store and transport, but it’s also possible they were adopted for use as arm-rings.

An important feature of Permian arm-rings is that they were manufactured to fixed weight standards, based on multiples of 100g. The heaviest rings, weighing 400g, are found only in Russia, while in the Baltic and Scandinavia most rings are smaller and lighter, weighing either 100 or 200g. This weight adjustment suggests that Permian rings functioned as large units of currency, a bit like a £1000 bank note. Interestingly, the Russian term for a 50g unit is grivna, which also means ‘neck-ring’.

Permian rings were probably made from melted-down dirhams, hundreds of thousands of which reached Russia (as well as the Baltic, and Scandinavia) as a result of Islamic trade with markets along the Russian river network. The fact that the heaviest rings are found in the east suggests that silver here was more plentiful than further west. It’s likely that large units of currency were well suited to the type of bulk trade, for instance, in raw goods and slaves, taking place in Russia. 

Cut fragment from a Permian arm-ring, found in Lincolnshire.
Photograph by me (© Fitzwilliam Museum, Cambridge)
Within Scandinavia, Permian rings are found mainly on the Baltic islands of Öland and Gotland, and in Denmark. Here, in southern Scandinavia, local versions of Permian rings were also produced: these have the same striations on the ring body, but they are generally thinner and lighter (50 or 100g), with two simple, hooked ends. No complete arm-rings of Permian or southern Scandinavian type are known from Britain, but a number of fragments have been recorded, for instance, in the famous Cuerdale hoard from Lancashire. Very occasionally, they also turn up as metal-detector finds. I photographed this new discovery during a recent research visit to the Fitzwilliam Museum, Cambridge. Its thickness indicates that it is a Permian type. It has been deliberately cut, and thus represents a piece of ‘hack-silver’, almost certainly to be used as a means of payment in a metal-weight economy.

So, we know quite a lot about the character of these finds, and how and where they were used. But their origins remain something of a mystery. The fact that they are associated with dirhams, and were made to fixed weights, may suggest an Arab origin, since accurate weight systems were a feature of the Islamic Caliphates. But the weight units also reflect the Russian grivna, and most rings are found in this, northern region. My guess would be that they were made by Russian merchants, perhaps in one of the great market places on the River Volga.

Wednesday, 24 July 2013

Trust in metal-weight exchange: the role of weights

How did Viking merchants know whether or not to trust their trading partner? For coin users like us, value is guaranteed by a central political authority (as well as our perception that the coin is not a forgery).  But in a bullion or metal-weight system, there was no equivalent of the Bank of England. Imagine a scenario in which a trader from Norway agreed a sale with a trader from Scandinavian England. Who decided which weight standards to use, and the degree of accuracy achieved in the weighing of silver? Why would you trust the scales and weights of someone you didn't know, and probably wouldn't meet again?

One way of ensuring trust in metal-weight transactions across different trading communities was to use standardised weights based on established weight units. By using a widely known, visually distinct and, most importantly, reliable weight type, a trader could help to boost confidence in their trading credentials. Like the picture of the queen on a bank note, standardised weights provided visual cues that added credibility to a transaction.

A cubo-octahedral weight from Yorkshire, with 4 dots.
Copyright: J Kershaw
In the Viking Age, there were two main types of standardised, or regulated weight associated with the weighing of silver: oblate-spheroid weights, which I wrote about here, and a second type, called cubo-octahedrals. These are copper-alloy weights in the shape of a cube with facetted corners (for which reason, they are sometimes described as 'dice' weights). These two different weight types were based around a common weight unit and could therefore be used together. But whereas oblate-spheroid weights weigh between 7 and 150g, cubo-octahedrals are much lighter, typically weighing between 0.75 and 4g.

For standardised weights to be effective, they must be visually recognisable and have a consistent weight, which is not easily falsified. This is certainly the case for cubo-octahedrals, which are distinguished by the appearance of 1 to 6 punched dots of their six square sides (and sometimes, as on this example, a single dot on the smaller, triangular surfaces). The purpose of these dots has been debated. Some have interpreted the dots as representing the position of the weight within a set. But this seems unlikely to me. For a start, the dots number 1, 2, 3, 4 or 6, but never 5. There is also emerging evidence that the number of dots relates to the weight of the item. Each dot appears to represent approx. 0.75g, meaning that a weight with, say, three dots will weigh in the region of 2.25g (3 x 0.75). Weights that have survived into the present day may be corroded, which can make it difficult to determine their original weight. This weight above, with four dots, weighs 2.61, which is close to the proposed target of 3g (4 x 0.75). In principle, I think it's fair to say that cubo-octahedrals wear their weight on their sleeve. A 'fake' would be easy to spot when handled, or when placed on the scale.

Map of cubo-octahedral weights (excluding those found at the Viking winter camp sites of Torksey (Lincs) and 'ARSNY'). The size of the diamond is scaled to the number of weights.

For interested colleagues, this is an updated version of Steuer's often reprinted map from 1997, showing all weights known to me as of March 2013. Copyright: J Kershaw
In order to be trusted by traders in different markets, standardised weights also had to cross national borders. Indeed, both Viking-Age types are found across the Scandinavian world, including in England. The map above shows that cubo-octahedral weights are found from Russia to Ireland, with many finds from the Danelaw (the area of northern and eastern England settled by the Scandinavians in the ninth century). However, the overall density of finds is rather different. Whereas in Scandinavia, the weights are found in large numbers at urban and market centres (the larger diamonds on the map), in England the distribution is more rural, and single finds are the norm. Somewhat surprisingly, there are no known clusters from Viking towns such as York or Lincoln. Why this is the case is an open question, but it is clear that cubo-octahedrals were in regular use by Scandinavian settlers in the rural Danelaw. They probably used them mainly to trade with each other, and perhaps occasionally with merchants from the Scandinavian homelands.

Wednesday, 24 April 2013

The problem of Viking silver ingots

During the Viking period, simple cast bar ingots had a number of different functions. They had an economic role, and were a convenient way of storing, transporting and exchanging silver within a bullion system. But they also served as a store of raw material for metalworking, and for the production of coins.

When ingots are found in hoards also containing deliberately fragmented silver and foreign coin, we can be reasonably confident that they passed as bullion. But what about ingots found as metal-detector finds, without an archaeological context?  In England, over 60 silver ingots of Viking-Age form have been recorded via metal-detecting, predominantly as isolated single finds. How can we be sure of their function?

An ingot with a rough and uneven appearance, from Yorkshire
(photo: Ian Cartwright)
One approach is to consider the form of the ingot. The majority of the single finds from England have parallel sides, rounded ends and D-shaped, oval or rectangular cross-sections. Fragmented ingots usually have clean cuts, made with a chisel. They thus have what could be described as a regular or consistent appearance (see ingot in lower picture). This is typical of ingots contained in hoards, where a standardised appearance may have helped to ensure confidence in the quality of the metal. 

However, this standardisation would not be needed for ingots used in metalworking. Indeed, some ingots associated with workshop areas on settlement sites in Scandinavia are uneven in appearance, with rough breaks. Such irregular ingots (such as the find from Yorkshire, above) were probably not used as a means of payment. That said, a regular shape does not preclude the use of an ingot in manufacturing.

A smooth, 'regular' ingot with rounded ends
and test marks (PAS 'Find-ID'
SF-144CA2, photo: PAS)
A second tactic to identify ingots as a means of payment is to consider evidence of ‘nicking’: the process designed to test the quality of the metal and/ or expose forgeries (see the ‘faking it’ blog below). Since a craftsperson would be unlikely to test the quality of an ingot s/he had recently cast, having already satisfied themselves of the quality of the silver going into the crucible, it seems unlikely that ingots used in metalworking or minting were regularly nicked. 

But nicking was a quick and easy means of testing the quality of silver in situations where the source of the silver was unknown, or where you might not trust your trading partner (such as at markets). It is therefore likely that nicked ingots acquired their test marks when they traded hands in commercial transactions. This is supported by the fact that nicking is widely observed on silver within Viking-Age hoards. In England, around half of all silver ingots found singly have test marks, a factor which points to their use as bullion. Notably, none of the 'irregular' ingots shows signs of testing, although the number of such ingots is small.

I can think of several other ways that ingots used in metalworking/ minting might be distinguished from those used as bullion.  Ingots used in commercial exchange might be expected to correspond to a particular weight unit, for instance, or to have a particularly high silver content. I’ll save these thoughts for a later blog article, but if anyone has any further suggestions in the meantime, please get in touch!

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.