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.