Tuesday, 30 January 2018

Tracing Viking loot

During the ninth century, Vikings launched sustained raids on the Continent. Their aim was to acquire portable wealth: gold and, especially, silver. By all accounts, they were remarkably successful. So why does so little Viking loot survive in the archaeological record?

The sums raised by the Vikings through bribery, theft and extortion were enormous, especially when raiding intensified in the mid ninth century. Surviving documentary sources tell us that Vikings on the Somme extracted 5,000 lbs. of silver in 860. Two years later, another group on the Loire gained 6,000 lbs. Exact sums are not always mentioned, but a reasonable estimate is that raids on the Continent earned the Vikings a total of 7 million Carolingian pennies (or c. 30,000 lbs of silver). In today’s money, that’s somewhere between 85 and 170 million British £ (maths courtesy of a 10th century Anglo-Saxon law code, and reckoning on the, rather variable, modern price of sheep).

A Carolingian coin of Lois the Pious, minted at Melle, western France between 822 and 840. It was found in Louth, Lincolnshire - one of a growing number of single finds of Carolingian coins from England. PAS 'Find-ID' F6C6E1

Despite this, only around 200 Carolingian coins are recorded within Scandinavia. Even more incredibly, these coins date mainly to the 820s and 830s, indicating that they arrived in Scandinavia before the high point of raiding in the middle of the ninth century.  Carolingian coins are also found in England and Ireland, both as single finds and in Viking-Age hoards. But even here they are not especially numerous, even in hoards deposited soon after the main events, in the ninth century. The recently-discovered Watlington (Oxfordshire) hoard, deposited in the late 870s, contains only 2 Frankish pennies out of a total of c. 200 coins. We’re talking a trickle, rather than a flood.

A selection of items and coins from the Watlington hoard, deposited in the late 870s. It contains just 2 Carolingian coins out of c. 200 coins - the remainder of which are 9th century Anglo-Saxon issues. One of the Carolingian coins is the larger-than-average coin in the top centre. They were slightly heavier than contemporary Anglo-Saxon coins.

So, what happened to all the Continental coins? Even if we accept that the Vikings sometimes received other goods (cattle, grain, wine) in place of silver, and spent a portion of this wealth (on land, for instance), we would still expect a significant proportion of coins to end up back in Scandinavia or in other areas settled by Viking groups in the ninth century. Do the written sources exaggerate the amount of European wealth that ended up in Viking hands? Or did the Vikings simply melt down most of the coins to make silver ingots and rings (which were, after all, easier to transport)?

Because the act of melting down the silver effectively masks its origins, the only way to answer this question is through metallurgical analysis. This has only rarely been undertaken for Viking silver. But I recently had the opportunity to analyse the silver objects (ingots, rings and a brooch) and contained in the Bedale, Yorkshire hoard, probably deposited around c. 900 AD. Together with Jane Evans at the British Geological Survey, I sampled all 37 silver artefacts from the hoard, obtaining lead isotope data for each item. This data gives an isotopic signature of the small amount of lead that is present in the silver. It can be compared with the isotopic ratios of lead in Carolingian pennies, and other likely source coinages, to identify relationships between the coins and the silver artefacts. It has the potential to reveal where the silver used to make ingots and rings originally came from.  

This is work in progress (you can see a short video about it here, and at the Vikings: Rediscover the Legend exhibition, currently on at Southport Atkinson centre). I'm going to write future blog articles about how the analysis as a whole sheds new light on the question of where Viking loot ended up. But here I wanted to share one, particularly exciting result. 

The two Hiberno-Scandinavian (ie. Irish-Viking) objects in the Bedale hoard seem to have lead isotope ratios that match closely those of coins produced at Melle in western France: a major Carolingian mint in the ninth century. The results would seem to suggest that they were made by melting down Carolingian coinage, perhaps coinage that was brought to Dublin in the years before c. 900. This is interesting, because the Cuerdale hoard, deposited c. 905-10 in Lancashire, north-west England, contains an unusually large number of Carolingian coins (about 1000), many of which come from western France and may be the result of a Viking raid on Aquitaine in 898. Much of the Cuerdale hoard silver came from Ireland - what we may be seeing is an influx of Carolingian coins into Dublin or the Irish Sea region shortly before the turn of the tenth century.  

A Hiberno-Scandinavian broad band arm-ring from the Bedale hoard. Its lead isotope ratio is consistent with 
that of coins produced at Melle in western France, suggesting it was made from melted-down Carolingian pennies. Photo copyright Yorkshire Museums.
In this case, then, it seems likely that silver coins obtained by the Vikings on the Continent were taken to Britain or Ireland where they were either preserved as coins or melted down into ingots and rings that the Vikings could store, trade and/ or wear as appropriate.  We are beginning to unravel the history of Carolingian coins once they passed into Viking hands. Would silver rings and ingots from Scandinavia reveal the same link with Melle? 


  1. Very cool story and great analysis. The outcome of hiding origin to mask utility or confiscation is interesting. It makes sense the context of our Max function for capital we presented here. thought you may find it interesting. https://papers.ssrn.com/sol3/papers.cfm?abstract_id=3281845 In the same way that Aztec gold and silver was melted (for different reasons) likely a lot of culture was lost as the Network value of the metal was percieved as greater than the artistic cultural value.

    1. You seem to make an often seen misconception of which values counted for the Vikings..
      They were primarily practical people who valued basic values above sophistication.
      It was people with a background of farming, crafts & trade.
      Especially trade were highly valued while it made access to essential materials & goods possible in areas where natural resources were scarce. They were traders who stole what they needed. Not necessarily bloodthirsty murders. Often they offered wealthy Towns a bargain not being looted .
      Our days Academics & other typical city living people tends to neglect the major importance of these basic daily incitements

      No viking would melt silver to hide or mask its original purpose or heritage. Who should question him on behalf of such "information"? He was a free man would had achieved values in a rightfull way.
      He needed transportable & tradeable silver for buying what had to be sailed home or traded somewhere else on his sailing route through Europe or across the North Sea
      That's the primary reason for original splendid craftsmanship is lost. No tradesman with fighting as secondary interest (and farming or craftsmanship as daily occupation) needed sophisticated silver or golden jewelry.
      There's thousands of archaeological findings of minor pieces of silver roughly chopped off according to its weight making a good deal possible.