Wednesday, 8 November 2017

Islamic coins as jewellery: finds from Viking England

It is well-known that the Vikings had extensive and deep contacts with the Islamic world. In the archaeological record, this is manifest most strikingly in the tens of thousands of Arabic silver coins (dirhams) that survive in Viking-Age hoards, settlements and graves across the Scandinavian world. The number of extant coins indicates the huge importance of Eastern trade routes via Russia, particularly during the tenth century. In this century (mostly in its first half), it is estimated that 125 million whole dirhams reached Northern Europe from Central Asia. 125 million!

For the most part, dirhams were treated as high-quality pieces of silver, to be used within the Scandinavian metal-weight economy. But a significant minority of them were used more creatively, and turned into ornaments to be worn on necklaces, primarily as part of female dress. This phenomenon has long been attested within Scandinavia. But a few recent finds raise the possibility that the Scandinavian fashion for dirham ornaments was also transferred to Viking-settled England.

One such dirham-pendant recently came to light in Lincolnshire, part of the Danelaw area of Scandinavian settlement. It is a Samanid coin, minted in 905/6, so will have reached England in the 910s at the earliest. In addition to being pierced for suspension, it is gilded on both sides. A diagonal area without gilding may have once held a pin-fitting, suggesting further re-use as a brooch.
Gilded and pierced Samanid dirham, minted in 905/6, probably in Balkh in modern-day Afghanistan.  The diagonal strip of silver may indicate the location of a secondary pin-fitting, now lost. PAS 'Find-ID' SWYOR-647094.
Normally, dirhams just have a single piercing, suggesting they hung from a necklace. This is also supported by their position in graves, around the neck or upper chest of the deceased. But multiple, opposing piercings are seen on coins strung on pendant chains. These are more elaborate necklaces featuring multiple coins, usually separated by rings or multiple silver chains, that are found mainly in Finland, Estonia and southern Scandinavia in the later part of the Viking Age. The one below comes from a hoard deposited after c. 1120 AD in Blekinge, southern Sweden. It has 10 coin-pendants, including Islamic issues and coins from Western European and Byzantium.

A chain of coin-pendants with riveted suspension loops from Blekinge,
southern Sweden. Image copyright Statens Historiska Museet.
A dirham with multiple piercings is also known from North Yorkshire. The holes probably result from riveted attachment loops, now detached. The dirham may have once been suspended taut on a pendant chain - possibly in England, but perhaps more likely in the Baltic/ Scandinavia. But the fact that it was found singly in the Danelaw suggests it was eventually lost during an economic transaction. This coin, then, had multiple 'lives', as a coin, ornament and, finally, a piece of bullion currency. 
A Khazar-imitation dirham, minted in the late 9th or early 10th century, with 4 piercings. Found in North Yorkshire.
PAS 'Find-ID' YORYM-FB7039.  
Dirhams carry several lines of Arabic script, including the name and date of the ruling caliph, the location and year of the minting and the name of the mint master. They also carry quotations from the Quran. Was this text comprehensible to the wearers of the dirham pendants? Almost certainly not. 

But this is not to say that the text itself was meaningless. Indeed, the position of the piercings on Islamic dirhams shows that they are usually orientated so that the lines of text are positioned either vertically or horizontally i.e. symmetrically, ensuring that the script was clearly visible (as on the example above). This suggests that dirham-pendants were seen as more than just decorative items. They were also symbolic - perhaps signalling the owner's access to high-quality silver coins from the East, or simply to exotic goods, brought from afar. As the pendant chain above demonstrates, dirhams can appear next to other types of coins on the same necklace/ chain, including Western European coins displaying crosses. Such necklaces seem to be making a statement about the wearer's diverse and far-reaching cultural contacts, as well as silver wealth.