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.|
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.
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