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.