Tuesday, 4 November 2014

The Dumfries and Galloway hoard: an archaeological context

In October this year a remarkable Viking hoard hit the headlines. It was discovered in Dumfries and Galloway (southwest Scotland) and contained both gold and silver items. To judge from the pictures posted by Treasure Trove Scotland, it’s a corker. Alongside familiar objects such as silver ingots and arm-rings, the hoard contained an Anglo-Saxon silver Christian cross with enamelled decoration, an Anglo-Saxon gold bird pin and, most spectacularly of all, a lidded Carolingian silver vessel filled with (as yet unexcavated) objects. Textile remains suggest the pot was originally wrapped in two layers of cloth. 

Some of the objects from the Dumfries and Galloway hoard. (© Treasure Trove Scotland)

The as yet unexcavated lidded Carolingian
silver cup, with textile remains
 (© Dumfries and Galloway Council)
My map of Viking-Age hoards (and single finds) from northwest England. Dumfries and Galloway is the territory at the top, hosting the compass. Red lines = Roman roads. Blue lines = Rivers (© Jane Kershaw)
The objects are stunning, and reveal the far-flung contacts and sources of wealth of Vikings operating in this area sometime around 900 AD. But is the hoard really so extraordinary? And what is its broader context?

Although it contains some stand-out objects, the Dumfries and Galloway hoard appears to fit into an established pattern of Viking hoarding in the lands surrounding the Irish Sea. Northwest England has produced a whole series of silver Viking hoards (17 at my last count) mainly dated to the first three decades of the tenth century. These include famous ‘historic’ hoards, such as that from Cuerdale, Lancashire, discovered in 1840, as well as recent discoveries, such as this hoard uncovered in Silverdale, Lancashire, in 2011. The distribution of the hoards (see below) shows that they are clustered around Morecombe Bay and, further south, around Chester.  The Dumfries and Galloway hoard is a more northerly findspot, but would still sit happily on this map.

Many of the artefact types contained within the D and G hoard have parallels from the same area. These include silver ingots and the punched-decorated arm-rings, known in academic circles as ‘Hiberno-Scandinavian broad-band’ arm-rings (if you say it enough times it just rolls off the tongue!). These artefacts, forming the circle in the group picture above, were produced in Scandinavian Dublin, and are also found in hoards from Huxley (Cheshire) and Silverdale (Lancashire) among others.

In fact, the Carolingian vessel has precedent. Ninth-century silver Carolingian cups formed part of the Halton Moor (deposited in c. 1025) and Vale of York hoards (deposited c. 927-8) and look very similar to the new find. These cups were originally used as liturgical containers for bread, incense or consecrated oil and were likely seized during Viking raids on the Continent. They must have been heirlooms when buried in Britain. Neither of the two known cups has a lid, however: a unique feature of the Dumfries and Galloway vessel.

So why was so much silver concealed around the Irish Sea in the early tenth century? The Sea was a hub of Viking activity, connecting Scandinavian settlements in Dublin, the Isle of Man, the western coast of mainland Britain and York. And these were turbulent decades. Scandinavian elites had been exiled from Dublin in 902 and sought new lands in Cheshire and coastal Lancashire. At the same time, Anglo-Saxon rulers from the kingdoms of Mercia and Wessex looked to extend their authority into a power vacuum left by the earlier collapse of Northumbria. The, often violent, upheavals would have necessitated the safeguarding of wealth accumulated through raids or trade at York and Dublin.

Clearly, this hoard has much still to tell us, not least regarding the contents of the Carolingian cup. It's a very exciting addition to Britain's Viking hoards. 

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.

Monday, 20 January 2014

Elite Viking Gold and Silver Jewellery from England

In recent years, metal-detecting in England has yielded hundreds of items of female Scandinavian jewellery dated to the Viking Age. Most of these objects are modest, mass-produced brooches and pendants in base metals (copper- and lead-alloys): more Topshop than Prada. But occasionally we get glimpses of jewellery at the other end of the social spectrum.

For the Vikings, filigree and granulation jewellery was the ultimate symbol of wealth and status.  These pieces used twisted and beaded wires (filigree) and small granules (granulation) in silver or gold to create incredibly elaborate brooches and pendants. Most surviving examples are in silver, but in 2013, a gold brooch came to light in Norfolk, part of the area settled by Scandinavians in England.

Gold filigree and granulation brooch, found in Norfolk
(PAS 'Find-ID' NMS-73CD11), copyright PAS
This lozenge-shaped brooch is made of sheet gold, obtained by hammering out and annealing a gold ingot. It has a flat back-plate and a convex front plate; these have been soldered together, creating a hollow middle. The filigree and granulation decoration applied to the front is based on 4 outward-facing animal heads as seen from above (best seen on the lowermost terminal), arranged around a central cross-like feature. This Borre-style design is a fairly common one on Scandinavian brooches and mounts, and means that the brooch can be dated to the late ninth or tenth century.

Viking gold jewellery is exceptionally rare, even within Scandinavia, making it likely that this piece was owned or worn by a woman of very high rank. But at the same time, it’s clear that this brooch is not the highest quality workmanship. Normally in filigree and granulation jewellery, the granules are the same size, but on this brooch, they are unevenly sized and spaced. Just look at the eyes of the lowermost animal head: the left one is far bigger than the right. The scrolls of the filigree wires are also loose and asymmetrical, and, in some parts, they fail to form the intended design. In short, this has a very amateurish (even shoddy?) feel and that it should be in such a rare and valuable precious metal is therefore perplexing. The brooch seems to have been worn a lot, because the beading on the filigree has been rubbed smooth in places. Is this an early example of an underdeveloped goldsmithing technique? Or does it suggest that there was a much wider spectrum of gold jewellery than the very fine surviving examples (almost all from hoards) suggest?

A silver disc brooch, cast in deep relief and with notching
in imitation of filigree (copyright North Lincolnshire Museum)
This is the only known Viking gold brooch from England, but there are hints that such sumptuous jewellery was more common than the few extant artefacts suggest. There is one further complete filigree and granulation piece of jewellery: a pendant in the shape of a bearded man's head, found in Yorkshire and now in the British Museum. In addition, a few cast silver brooches from England imitate filigree and granulation designs, suggesting that metalworkers had access to such jewellery to use as models. The gilded silver brooch from Lincolnshire shown above is one such example. It emulates filigree, both in the 'notching' of its cast bands and in its unusual deep-casting. 

A couple of artefacts even point to the manufacture of elite Scandinavian jewellery in England. One is this bird-shaped copper-alloy die, found in Lincolnshire. It would have been used to create silver or gold sheets, applied to a pendant back-plate and used as a base for filigree and granulation work. A lead patrix for creating moulds for dies of this type is also known from York.
A copper-alloy die for making precious-metal bird-shaped pendants,
found in Lincolnshire (PAS 'Find-ID' NLM-690F57), copyright PAS
No finished pendants of this type survive in England, but similar bird-pendants were found in the nineteenth century in a famous Viking gold hoard from Hiddensee. The location of Hiddensee, off the Baltic coast of Germany, suggests that the hoard may have been deposited by wealthy Danes en-route between Denmark and the central Baltic.

While actual filigree and granulation gold and silver jewellery is rare in England, a number of different strands of evidence converge to suggest that it was probably more common than the existing archaeological evidence suggests. The new gold brooch from Norfolk is the latest and strongest evidence yet for the availability of such jewellery on this side of the North Sea, and, in turn, for the presence of very high-status Scandinavians in England during the Viking Age.