Wednesday 21 April 2021

Silver from the Caliphate: Islamic dirhams in Viking-Age England

One of the main sources of Viking wealth was Islamic silver coins known as dirhams. These fine-silver coins were produced all across the Islamic Caliphate - an area spanning part of Spain and north Africa in the west to Central Asia in the east. They were highly desired by the Vikings, who traded them in return for furs and slaves as a source of raw material for their bullion economy. Archaeologists have recorded over 75,000 dirhams from buried hoards in Scandinavia. This is a large number, but it’s just a tiny fraction of the number minted by the enormously wealthy Caliphs. 

We expect to find dirhams in hoards in Scandinavia, but they also turn up in western Viking settlement contexts. In England, dirhams are clearly associated with Viking activity. They appear in hoards, but they are also common at Viking military camp sites. Over 120 dirham fragments have been recovered from Torksey, Lincolnshire, occupied by the Viking Great Army in 872/3; the comparable camp site of Aldwark, North Yorkshire, has produced 15. These coins have travelled incredible distances from their source - mainly in modern-day Iran and Iraq, up the Russian river systems to the Baltic and Scandinavia, and then on to England.  They are a tangible example of the far reach of the Viking eastern trade network. 

Just a few of the many fragmented dirhams from Torksey, Lincolnshire, where the Viking Great Army overwintered in 872/3. Image: Fitzwilliam Museum, Cambridge

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A third, and ever-expanding source of dirhams in England is single finds, discovered by metal-detectorists. These single finds are especially interesting, because they were most likely lost by their owners when they were in use. Their findspots therefore reveal locations where Scandinavians, or other users of a bullion economy, were weighing out and trading silver. The single finds span a wider area of northern and eastern England, broadly consistent with the area of Scandinavian settlement known as the Danelaw. But there are some surprises - including this recent discovery just down the road from my home, in Syon Park, west London. This coin came from the River Thames. Was it lost during the Vikings' occupation of the city in the 9th century?


Single finds of dirhams in England, compared to Viking-Age silver hoards. The single finds are widespread, showing the true extent of bullion use. NB. Viking camp sites not mapped. Map copyright to me.

Interestingly, the single find distribution does not align with that of Viking-Age silver hoards from England. I recently mapped all the dirhams I've recorded over the years. As this map shows, the hoards are clustered in the north-west, around the Irish Sea littoral, and Yorkshire, but the single finds are much more widely distributed. Why are the hoards and single finds not aligned?  It might be due to historically lower levels of metal-detecting in north-west England. Indeed, several new finds come from this area, and I expect further dirhams to be found here in future. But the real question is why there are so few hoards in eastern England. It looks to me that people in Lincolnshire, Norfolk and Suffolk had fewer reasons to bury their wealth for safe keeping. This region may have been more peaceful than the north/north-west, which faced a lot of politically instability in the late ninth and tenth centuries (see this blog-post).

Many of the dirham finds from England are fragments, having been cut to generate small sums for payment. This is especially the case at Torksey, where the dirhams are very finely fragmented - a sign that they changed hands often, presumably among the members of the Viking Great Army. The high silver content of dirhams meant that they were generally a trusted source of silver - not like Anglo-Saxon or Carolingian coin, which was frequently debased. However, plated forgeries were made by contemporaries in attempts to pass off copper coins as silver. A copper dirham covered in white metal to appear like silver was recently discovered in Osbaston, Leicestershire. It copies a dirham of the Abbasid ruler Hârûn ar-Rashîd (of One Thousand and One Nights fame), minted in al-Muhammadîya (Iran). Did its owners know it was a fake, or did it pass as a real dirham?

An early medieval forgery. 
This copper-alloy 'dirham', found in Leicestershire in 2019, was coated in white metal.




  1. As Cat Jarman puts it "Is absence of evidence evidence of absence?". It might seem reasonable to think that if hoards had been buried in eastern regions some would by now have been discovered, but is this a secure enough foundation for any subsequent historical assumption? As you intimate, intensities of detectoring may vary geographically, and has the agricultural history/techniques of E.Anglia and Lincolnshire differed sufficiently from areas where hoards have been found to suggest disruption/dispersal of burials? Just some idle thoughts. Fascinating research by the way.
    Martin Pond

  2. I found half a Dirham/Saffarid coin fragment recently in E. Yorks whilst metal detecting. This has been recorded by Dr. Martin Allen c/o the FitzWilliam Museum
    ref; EMC 2023.0248.