Sunday, 23 December 2012

How long did the bullion economy last in England?

Thanks to dateable hoards and site finds, we are pretty knowledgeable about the introduction of bullion in England. Current evidence suggests that bullion was being used by some of the earliest Viking raiders and settlers in England – that is, in the 870s, around the same time as bullion use was developing within Scandinavia. 

The end-date of the metal-weight economy in England is less clear, however.  The latest silver hoards from the Danelaw are found in northern England, and date to the late 920s (e.g. the Vale of York hoard, deposited c927-28). But the evidence from single finds suggests that bullion use continued for longer than the hoards alone indicate. A handful of recent discoveries of foreign and pecked coins, treated as bullion rather than as coins, suggest instead that the bullion economy continued into the 930s, and possibly beyond.

A tiny dirham fragment from Yorkshire. Photo by Ian Cartwright 
This picture shows a tiny dirham fragment, recently discovered at a site in Yorkshire (dirhams were Islamic coins minted in the Middle East, which formed an important source of silver for the Scandinavian bullion economy). Very few people are able to identify these coins, so I took the fragment to Stockholm, to be analysed by coin expert Gert Rispling. After very careful study and comparison with better preserved coins (such as the one below), Gert identified it as a mint of Tashkent, Uzbekistan, dated to c928/9. 

A better preserved dirham, similar to the
one found in Yorkshire
Estimates of the time it took dirhams of this date to travel from their source in the Middle East via Scandinavia and/or the Baltic to England vary: from one or two years to between ten and fifteen. If we take a mid-point of c5 years, the coin cannot have been lost much before the mid 930s, while its fragmentary condition hints at an even later date of loss, in the later 930s or even 940s. Although this coin fragment looks insignificant, it suggests that a fresh source of silver continued to reach the northern Danelaw sixty years or more after the first Viking settlements.

The end-date of bullion use in England is important– and not just for pedantic scholarly reasons.  Since bullion use was a distinctly Scandinavian economic and cultural practice in this period, its longevity in England provides a useful measure of the degree of Anglo-Saxon and Scandinavian assimilation.  In a scenario in which the Scandinavians quickly adopted local practices, we might expect the use of bullion to have been relatively short-lived –perhaps not extending beyond a generation or two. But perhaps we're now seeing opposing evidence: the Scandinavian way of doing business - or at least their means of exchange - seems to have continued in some areas for an extended period. Although we must be careful not to infer too much from a small number of finds, these coins offer hints for a continued separateness of the Scandinavian settlers and their descendants from the existing, local population. 

Saturday, 3 November 2012

Viking Weights: Part 1

The lead weights with metal insets discussed below were rough and ready tools for weighing bullion in a metal-weight economy. The Vikings also had access to more regular, standardised weights in iron and copper-alloy, which were manufactured to specific weight units.

Oblate spheroid weight from Yorkshire, recorded by the PAS
(PAS 'Find-ID' YORYM-01C134). The copper-alloy shell has corroded,
revealing the weight's iron core. Image courtesy of the PAS
One type of standardised weight is known as the oblate spheroid: a spherical weight with flattened poles with an iron core and copper-alloy shell.  These weights originated in the Arab Middle East. Unlike the lead weights, they were made in accordance with the official Islamic weight standard, the mitqāl, of c 4.23g. It's for this reason, as well as the fact that they were difficult to forge, that they're often described as 'regulated' or 'standardised'.

Oblate spheroids first arrived in Scandinavia during the late ninth century, along with large numbers of Islamic silver coins known as dirhams. They are thus closely associated with the weighing of silver as payment: a connection supported by the fact that some silver hoards from Scandinavia contain oblate-spheroid weights.

Interestingly, these weights are also found in England. They must represent imports from Scandinavia, and are thus firmly associated with Viking activity. Yet their distribution shows some unexpected trends. Whereas we might expect the weight distribution to be correlated with that of Viking-Age silver hoards, oblate-spheroids in fact show a different geographical pattern, focused mainly in the east of England, although with some overlap with hoards in Yorkshire. A significant number of examples come from East Anglia, where there are no certain Viking hoards.

Oblate spheroid weights (clear circles) vs hoards (black dots). Copyright J Kershaw.

In this map, the black dots represent hoards (e.g. Cuerdale; the Vale of York), and the clear circles oblate-spheroid weights. This shows the 40+ examples I've recorded from England (excluding the Viking winter camp sites of Torksey, Lincolnshire, and 'A Riverine Site near York').  Others are also known from Scotland and Viking Dublin. Since oblate-spheroids vary in weight (typically from c 8 to several dozen grams), I've increased the size of the circle in line with the weight: the heavier the weight, the larger the circle. This will, I hope, give a sense of differences in the quantity of silver being exchanged across regions. The map shows that even in areas which minted coins under Viking kings (e.g. East Anglia; York), a vibrant bullion economy operated at a variety of levels.

I've found this a useful way of visualising the hundreds of single finds of bullion and bullion-related items I've now recorded a part of my project.  By combining this data with that from other artefact groups, such as silver ingots and rings, I intend to test this apparent disconnect between the distribution of hoards and single finds of bullion, and to plot the distributions against regional levels of metal-detecting activity.

Feedback on this, or other approaches, is always welcome!

Friday, 5 October 2012

Second-hand trade in Viking loot

Among recent detector-finds from England are rather odd-looking cruciform (cross-shaped) mounts. They are often broken, with various projecting arms, giving the impression of birds, as seen from above. They are decorated with interlace and triskele motifs (made of three interlocking spirals). From these designs, we can tell that they date to the eighth and early ninth centuries, and that they were probably made in Ireland, or perhaps in Irish communities in Scotland.

An Irish bridle mount recently found in Devon
(PAS 'Find-ID' CORN-29D1E2)
image courtesy of the PAS
When complete, the arms of mounts would have interlocked with the terminals from other mounts, and this is one way we can tell that they were supposed to be worn in sets. They seem to have been used as embellishments for horse bridles, specifically to cover the strap-unions.  Examples have been found in association with bridles, as well as horse skeletons, in Viking burials in Ireland and Norway. 

It's also clear, however, that mounts sometimes became separated from their set. Single mounts were often recycled to be used in other ways, for instance, as weights (see post below) or items of jewellery. The mount seen here from Devon occupies an intermediary position: it has been separated from its set, but not yet adapted for alternative use. These isolated mounts were clearly very popular among the Vikings: numerous examples have been found in the Scandinavian homelands, as well as in regions associated with Viking activity in Britain. 
Why they were so popular, when they couldn't be used for their original purpose, is an interesting question. Since the mounts were made in Ireland, it's likely that many items were seized as loot during Viking raids on Ireland the west coast of Scotland in the eighth and ninth centuries. Although they are not made of precious metal, they are highly decorative. They probably held symbolic value, serving to associate their owners with the prestige and wealth gained through raiding activity in the West. 

Irish mounts and other artefacts recovered from the River Blackwater.
ht Ulster Museum
Connections with raiding activity (if that's what they did symbolise) didn't have to be earned: they could also be bought. The widespread distribution of these finds, in both Britain and Scandinavia, suggests that such pieces were widely available, and this hints at an intensive second-hand trade in looted material. This is supported by the discovery of such loot at prominent Scandinavian market sites, including Kaupang, Norway, and Birka, Sweden, as well as by the fragmentary metalwork and offcuts, including enamels and bridle mounts, found along with Scandinavian-type silver in the River Blackwater at Shanmullagh, Ireland. This assemblage may have been the spoil of a Viking raid on the nearby Armagh monastery in 895. It has been interpreted as the ‘stock-in-trade’ of a Hiberno-Viking metal-worker or merchant, perhaps en route to a market place in Scandinavia or the Danelaw when it was lost or deposited.

Wednesday, 29 August 2012

Lead weights with metal insets

The accurate weighing of hack-silver and gold was critical for the operation of the Viking bullion economy.  In order to check the value of bullion being exchanged, Viking traders weighed the bullion with hand-held balances and small lead or copper-alloy weights.  In England, one type of weight associated with Viking activity is a lead weight with inset metalwork. These weights are not included in hoards, but they are among recent metal-detector finds, with some being found at market places and urban sites in presumed commercial contexts.

The inset metalwork is usually just a small fragment, which has been taken from a larger object.  Sometimes this can be recognised as culturally Scandinavian –the fragment might derive from a Scandinavian oval brooch, for instance. But it is much more common for the metalwork to have an Insular background (that is, it was made in the British Isles or Ireland). Often the metalwork contains enamel, or decorative interlace schemes, both of which were popular Insular art forms.

Lead weight with inset Insular metalwork, found in Norfolk 
(image courtesy of the Portable Antiquities Scheme 'Find ID' NMS-03F926)

Usually the metalwork was cut rather haphazardly, although in some cases a complete object was used (e.g. a complete strap-slide, as in the picture below). It may seem odd that bullion weights could incorporate metal fragments of varying size and weight whilst maintaining a weight standard, but in most cases the metal fragments will have contributed only slightly to the overall mass of the weight. Moreover, since the lead was usually shaped to fit the mount, it is clear that weights were fashioned with specific metalwork pieces in mind.

A lead weight incorporating an Insular belt-slide, found in Cumbria and recorded by the Portable Antiquities Scheme (PAS 'Find-ID' LANCUM-683C84)

The reason why metalwork was re-used in lead weights in this way is unclear.  It seems unlikely that it was for aesthetic purposes – some of the weights are not exactly attractive. Another possibility is that the metalwork served to personalise weights, allowing the owner to easily recognise their set in a trading environment where multiple sets of weights were in use. This would mean that the owner of the weights could trust his or her own set, and thereby guard against fraud in a transaction. The discovery of multiple weights in graves, for instance, in the Scandinavian boat-burial from Kiloran Bay, Colonsay, supports the idea of individual ownership of weight sets.

But why re-use Insular metalwork in particular? It seems clear that this type of weight first emerged in England, soon after the cessation of Viking raids on Ireland and the west coast of Scotland. These raids generated wealth for the Vikings, often in the form of bullion. It may be that Insular metalwork held symbolic value, serving as a visual reminder of the source of Scandinavian wealth in precisely the contexts when bullion was being exchanged. 

Tuesday, 21 August 2012

Viking gold bullion

During the Viking Age, gold was considerably scarcer than silver. It was therefore much more valuable, probably around 10-12 times silver’s value. Viking gold and silver objects were rarely deposited in hoards together, suggesting that silver and gold fulfilled different functions. Moreover, whereas silver objects were often fragmented to generate small sums of bullion, gold objects are normally found in a complete state. This has led to the view that gold objects such as arm- and neck-rings were worn as high-status jewellery items, or perhaps ritually deposited, while silver was more often a means of payment. 

However, evidence from settlement finds is providing a fresh perspective on the economic use of gold.  At the Viking winter camp of Torksey, Lincolnshire, several hack-gold fragments have been found, some with signs of cut marks, indicating they they had been cut from larger objects. A fake gold ingot (a copper-alloy ingot with a gilded exterior) is also known from the site. The presence of such a fake hints at the local use of gold in trade, as well as the presence of dodgy traders.

Of course, gold was still highly valuable. Even small amounts were carefully preserved. Another recent settlement find is a tiny gold ingot, found on the Viking-period farmstead in Old Lejre, Denmark. Given the size of the ingot, it's easy to see how it could have been dropped, and lost for good. Interestingly, the ingot still shows faint signs of hammer marks, which were sometimes applied to ingots in preparation for cutting into even smaller pieces. This shows that even very small quantities of gold  carried a significant value. 

Tiny gold ingot from Old Lejre, Denmark, scaled against one of my rings.

This emerging picture of gold use within the Viking bullion economy prompts a reassessment of the gold contained in hoards.  Recent research by the leading Viking scholar James Graham-Campbell has shown that the (complete) rings contained within the gold hoard from Hoen, Norway, were weight-adjusted to the same unit of 100g. This would not be necessary if the rings were intended only to be worn, but would make sense if the rings were to be traded or stored as countable wealth. Complete gold rings may, then, have had more of a role within the bullion economy than has previously been realised. (For more on the Hoen hoard, see here)

Friday, 27 July 2012

Faking it

When trading in silver or gold, it is important that the precious metal is of a good quality. In the Viking period, silver could be debased with copper or lead. Alternatively, base-metal objects might be plated in silver or superficially surface enriched to give a deceptive silvery appearance. In order to expose these fakes and debasements, the Vikings developed a number of techniques to reveal the purity of silver.

One such technique was 'nicking', in which small knife cuts or notches were made to the edge of an artefact, such as an ingot or arm-ring. Today, these are visible as crescent-shaped marks. On coins, the more usual technique is known as 'pecking': sharp jabs were made to a flat surface with the tip of a knife, resulting in a small curl of metal. Pecking seems to have appeared in England in the ninth century, as a response to the mixed quality of coinage encountered by the Vikings.

In both cases, the technique was designed to expose plated or enriched forgeries and/ or to test the purity of the silver. If the resistance felt to the nicks and pecks was too soft, there was a chance that lead had been added; too hard, and too much copper might be present. This was also the rationale behind one further testing technique: hammering out a silver item into a thin strip. Since it would take quite a lot of experience and skill to be able to judge accurately the 'right' feel of a peck or nick, these techniques were probably carried out by specialists.

Some items from Viking hoards have huge numbers of nicks or pecks, such as this cut silver ingot. Why would a single artefact have acquired so many nicks? Was it suspicious? And why would somebody test an artefact which had evidently been tested multiple times previously? It's a bit like pressing the button for a lift that has been pressed multiple times before. A study of one of the largest Viking silver hoards has shown that there is no link between the quality of silver in an object, and the number of testing marks it acquired. Perhaps nicking an object was part of a ritual or routine that sealed the end of a transaction: a form of handshake or signature. 

A heavily nicked ingot from the National Historical Museum, Stockholm (photo: me, hand: mine )

Friday, 20 July 2012

Viking metalwork from the south-west

The Vikings are not normally associated with the south-west of England (e.g. Dorset, Wiltshire, Somerset). Although Viking armies raided the region in the 870s, there is no recorded Viking settlement and archaeological evidence for a Viking presence is slim. 

There are, however, a few items of metalwork which suggest Scandinavian cultural influence in the region, and possibly even the presence of Vikings. One such item is this strap-end from Mudford, Somerset, recorded by the Portable Antiquities Scheme: PAS 'Find-ID' SOM-9ABAE0, and now on display in Somerset Museum. 
(Photo courtesy of the Portable Antiquities Scheme and Somerset County Council)

This strap-end could have been worn by men or women. It would have been fitted to the end of a waist belt, to keep the ends from fraying and to help guide it through a buckle. 

It's design consists of symmetrical interlace with scrolled terminals and looping, contoured strands. These are positioned on either side of a concave-sided sub-rectangular rib. No animal elements are present, but the origin of the design was an animal as seen from above; the rib representing its torso and the scrolled terminals its spiral hip. 

This decoration reveals that the strap-end is Scandinavian and dates to the late ninth or tenth century.  Similar strap-ends are known from Denmark, and the same design also appears on tongue-shaped brooches from Sweden. Either the Mudford trap-end was made in Scandinavia and imported to England, or it was produced in England in imitation of a Scandinavian fashion. Either way, it provides rare evidence for the presence of Scandinavian dress styles in an area of England normally thought immune from Viking influence. 

My research is part-funded by the tax-payer. Read about it here!

The Bullion Economy of Viking England: (not very)FAQ's

What is the Viking bullion economy?

         In the Viking bullion economy, weighed silver and, less commonly, gold was used as a means of exchange, rather than coin. Within a bullion, or metal-weight, economy, what is important is not the form the metal takes, but its weight and purity. The Vikings stored silver in ingots and ornaments, and cut them up into small pieces in order to generate payment. They weighed silver using hand-held balances and weights, and tested the purity of silver through ‘nicks’ and ‘pecks’, the aim being to expose plated forgeries and base-metal debasements.

Why study it?

The Vikings operated a bullion economy in Scandinavia and in areas they colonised, including England.  In England, however, the Anglo-Saxons had long been using coin, in ways familiar to us today. Where we find evidence for bullion in England, we therefore have evidence for a distinctly Scandinavian economic and cultural practice. This can be studied to answer core questions about the Vikings in England, such as: What was the area of the UK corresponding to Viking cultural influence? What were the sources of Viking wealth? What did the Vikings buy with silver and to what extent did these two economic systems, the coin and bullion economies, interact? This, in turn, can generate new insights into broader questions of social integration in Anglo-Scandinavian England.

What’s your angle?

            Past study of Viking bullion has been dominated by the evidence of silver hoards, found in England in large numbers from the early tenth century. While these approaches are valuable, material selected and deliberately deposited in hoards may not be typical of items used in daily exchange. My project uses an altogether different category of evidence: finds from settlements and single finds, discovered over the last two decades as a result of metal-detecting. As accidental losses, these ought to represent the scale and use of bullion more accurately.

What does the bullion look like?

            This material encompasses hundreds of bullion-related items, of ninth- and early tenth-century date. I am studying four main categories of evidence: ingots, that is, silver and gold bars; ornaments, especially arm- and neck-rings; foreign coin, such as Arabic dirhams, and regulated weights. Most of this material comprises recent metal-detector finds, but some items come from archaeological excavation, and a few are antiquarian finds (discovered before 1900). My database currently includes c.450 objects in total. When it is complete, I will put it on-line.

Rings as bullion, I thought they were ornaments?

Neck-, arm- and finger-rings were both ornaments and a means of storing bullion. The ability to literally wear your wealth is one of the most distinctive characteristics of the Viking bullion economy. When complete, these ornaments could be worn as symbols of prestige and authority – most likely on special, public occasions, rather than in day-to-day life. But when necessary they could also be taken off and cut up to generate payment. This seems odd to us – a bit like hacking bits off an expensive watch in order to pay for the weekly shop - but the concept appears to have been deep-rooted in Scandinavian society. Sometimes rings were made to a specific weight, and thus their value could be standardised.