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.