Friday, 16 October 2015

Where were dirhams fragmented?

A good way of learning about the uses of silver within a bullion economy is to measure the extent of silver fragmentation. Whereas the frequent occurrence of highly fragmented silver suggests that silver actively circulated as money (that is, it often changed hands in commercial settings), the dominance of large, complete silver items suggests that silver was mainly stored as wealth.

One source of Viking silver that is often found in a fragmentary condition is Arabic dirhams – the critical source of silver fuelling the Viking bullion economy. Patterns of dirham fragmentation have the potential to reveal important insights into the local use of silver.  But, first, we have to establish where dirham fragmentation took place.

A big question is: were dirhams broken up near their source, in the Caliphate, or following their import into the Baltic and Scandinavian lands? The answer is, most likely, in both areas.  From c. 850 AD Near Eastern mints stopped producing coins to fixed weight standards, and a couple of decades later, broken dirhams start to appear in local hoards. Such fragments were probably required to ‘top up’ weighed payments to the required sum. Some hoards contain upwards of 40% fragments, suggesting that these pieces formed an important part of local monetary circulation. So some dirhams arriving in Scandinavia after c. 850 will have been fragmented already.

But it’s also clear that dirhams were further fragmented within Scandinavia. This is shown by the fact that the degree of dirham fragmentation across Scandinavia varies region by region. Writing in the 1980s, the Swedish numismatist Brita Malmer found that just 35% of hoarded dirhams from the Swedish island of Gotland were fragmented, compared to c. 66% of dirhams from the Swedish mainland provinces of Södermanland and Småland and 91% of dirhams from Östergötland. What’s more, the fragments from Östergötland were much more finely divided than those on Gotland. 

These patterns may partly reflect differences in local hoarding practices rather than the overall balance of fragmentary and whole dirhams in the local currency, but it seems clear that some dirham fragmentation took place locally.  In addition, whereas dirham fragments from Near Eastern hoards are usually roughly broken, many fragmented dirhams found within Scandinavia have been cut to sharp edges, probably with a chisel, and this provides a strong clue that division took place locally. Some dirhams found in Scandinavia have both broken and cut sides, suggesting at least two different locations of fragmentation (for examples from Kaupang, Norway, see the chapter by Mark Blackburn in this publication).
A complete dirham from Northamptonshire. Half of dirhams recorded singly in England are complete. (Image PAS)

Exactly where dirhams found in England were cut is difficult to say, and the answer will no doubt vary from coin to coin. Dirhams travelling as far west as England probably changed hands many times along their journey from the Caliphate, and thus stood a high chance of being cut at some point. Among the c. 60 single finds of dirhams I’ve recorded from England, half are whole (as the example shown above) and half are cut. The cut coins have an average weight of just 0.59g: less than a quarter of a complete coin (weighing c. 3g).

A very thin dirham fragment from Torksey, Lincolnshire, weighing just 0.38 grams. The edges are roughly broken, rather than cut, perhaps suggesting that it was fragmented in the caliphate. (Image PAS)

Interestingly, dirhams from Viking military camp sites in England are even more finely divided. At Torksey, Lincolnshire, occupied by the Viking Great Army in 872/3, over 90 dirhams have been found, but none are complete – they are all fragments with an average weight of just 0.44g: less than 1/6th of a complete coin. Notably, even ‘young’ dirhams that had only recently been minted, are very fragmentary.  Assuming that extremely fragmented dirhams were unlikely to have travelled over long distances in a short amount of time (simply because they would likely be lost in the process), this suggests that these coins were at least partly fragmented at Torksey. However, the sliver of a dirham shown above is roughly broken, rather than cut.  It may have been entirely fragmented in the Near East. 

In sum, the evidence suggests that at least the final stages of dirham fragmentation were carried out locally, rather than from a central source. Patterns of dirham fragmentation do, then, seem to be a good guide to regional bullion needs and economic structures. 

Friday, 24 July 2015

The art of the silversmith: stamped decoration on Viking silver

Stamped decoration is ubiquitous on Viking silver. This blog takes a quick look at how it was executed.

Within Scandinavia, the two most common shapes for stamps to take were ring-stamps and triangles, often containing 1 or 3 pellets. Often, two triangles were placed end-on-end creating an hourglass shape.

Such simple shapes were relatively easy to produce. In most cases, a punch was applied to the surface of the object soon after casting. To avoid a double impression, the punch had to be made in a single blow. Actual examples of punches used to create the ornament are rare, but one example comes from a late Viking-Age tool chest found at Mästermyr on Gotland. This is essentially a square iron rod, which originally had an hourglass shape on the striking face (it’s now very worn). A lead pad from the same tool chest seems to have been a testing piece for this stamp and others: it is covered on both sides with stamped hourglasses and rings.

Lead trial piece for triangular stamps,
from Torksey, Lincolnshire
(my photo, taken at the Fitzwilliam Museum)
But although the stamps themselves are rare, there are a few examples of other trial pieces, always made of lead. Three come from the Viking winter camp of Torksey, Lincolnshire, which the Vikings occupied in 872/3, at the height of their raiding activity in Britain. One of these, pictured to the right, has about twenty punches of a triangle with three dots – a form of decoration that could have been applied to Scandinavian neck-, arm- or finger-rings. When not busy taking over Anglo-Saxon kingdoms, it seems the Viking army was producing decorated silver ornaments (among other items). 

Despite the practice that the trial pieces imply, surviving ornaments show that the application of stamps was not an exact science – stamps were not always evenly applied, and some even contain cracks (see blog post below). This is the case with some unusual trefoil-shaped stamps on a silver arm-ring from a Viking-Age hoard from Yorkshire, which I studied at the Yorkshire Museum. The first stamps were applied in the middle of the ring, and are intact, but as the silversmith moved towards the outer edges of the ring, a crack appeared in the punch. This is clearly visible where the lozenge ornament has split, especially on the upper level of the ring.

Silver arm-ring from Yorkshire with stamped trefoils. The punch cracked partway through, resulting in splits in the decoration. My photo, taken at Yorkshire Museum.

Interestingly, it wasn’t always necessary to punch the silver after casting. Sometimes, the ornament could be stamped into a beeswax model, and that model used to create a clay mould from which silver objects could be cast. This is clearly demonstrated by a terrific find from the harbour site of Fröjel, Gotland: it’s a Viking-Age clay mould which preserves stamped hourglass decoration, neatly picked out in the drawing (see here for other examples). This mould would have been used to cast decorated silver arm-rings.

A mould fragment (right) shown together with a modern clay imprint, with stamped hourglass decoration.
Image © Anders Söderberg
An illustrated database of stamps - building on James Graham-Campbell's recent work in this book - would be of great help in establishing workshop traditions and links between different objects.

Thursday, 9 April 2015

A modern fake exposed

Modern reproductions of Viking-Age artefacts are often of a really high quality. Indeed, sometimes they are so good that even the experts mistake them for genuine items. One such ‘fake’ is this Thor’s hammer pendant, said to have been found south of Carlisle. It was acquired by the British Museum in 1990.

A modern-day forgery of a Thor's hammer pendant
(image © British Museum)

Thor’s hammers are interpreted as miniature representations of Mjolnir, the mythical hammer of the pagan Norse God Thor.  In the Viking Age, both men and women wore them as pendants, probably for protective purposes. At the time of the ‘discovery’ of the Carlisle pendant, only one other Thor’s hammer was known from England (from the Cuerdale hoard). But since then, many more have come to light. In the context of these new finds, a few features of the Carlisle Thor’s hammer stand out. As James Graham-Campbell shows in a recent book, it can now be identified as a modern fake.

There are 3 main clues: 2 stylistic, and 1 scientific.

The first is its decoration. Triangular stamps are very common on Viking-Age artefacts.  But these typically contain just one or three pellets: the use of six pellets, as on this hammer, is extremely unusual. Zooming in to see these triangular stamps up close, it's clear that they have been applied very precisely (although not symmetrically). Indeed, it looks like they were cast in the mould, rather than applied to the pendant after casting. Such precision is unusual. Normally, such stamps are applied casually - they overlap, are unevenly executed and, in general, are a bit wonky. The image on the right shows the stamps on a silver arm-ring from the Vale of York hoard (including triangles with three pellets). These give a much more accurate impression of the true character of Viking stamped decoration.

The triangular stamps are too precise,
and the use of 6 pellets is atypical
(image © British Museum)
The overlapping and lop-sided stamps on this arm-ring are more
representative of Viking-Age decoration (image © British Museum)

The second feature that raises suspicion is they way the pendant is suspended. The ends of the suspension ring are secured by a rivet. But usually the ends of suspension rings, and indeed rings in general, are simply twisted together. The plain globular knob, through which the suspension ring passes, is also out of place.  Thor’s hammers from England usually have either a looped end, as is the case with this example from Norfolk, or a simple perforation through the ‘handle’.

This genuine Thor's hammer pendant from Norfolk has a
typical suspension loop (image © PAS)
But what clinches it for me is its metal content. Analysis at the British Museum revealed that the pendant was made of 93% silver, with the rest being copper. What was missing was gold. Gold naturally occurs in silver and is found in small amounts in most ancient ‘silver’. Crucially, however, it is refined out of modern silver.  Its absence in this Thor’s hammer therefore suggests that the pendant is modern.

So how did the maker of this pendant (whose identity is not known) come up with this design? As James Graham-Campbell points out, in the early 1980s a very popular Vikings Exhibition was held in York. The accompanying exhibition catalogue contains a drawing of a man in reconstructed Viking dress. Around his neck hangs a Thor's hammer decorated with triangular stamps containing 6 pellets. Although it can't be proved, it's likely that this artistic interpretation served as the inspiration for the modern-day forger.