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 From this construction we can tell that Permian rings were originally made to fasten, and were probably designed as neck-rings.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.