Wednesday, 13 April 2016

An unexpected absence: Anglo-Saxon silver in Viking hoards

The recent excavation of a Carolingian silver cup found in 2014 as part of the Galloway hoard revealed a number of extraordinary objects. Among them was a series of large Anglo-Saxon silver disc brooches, in styles that date them to the ninth century.  Such objects, worn by the Anglo-Saxon elite (possibly in pairs) seem like an obvious choice for inclusion in a Viking hoard.  Yet rarely are Anglo-Saxon silver objects found in such contexts.

One of the 9th century Anglo-Saxon silver brooches, here with preserved textile,
from the Galloway hoard (copyright Historic Scotland) 
Anglo-Saxon silver items such as brooches, mounts and strap-ends, ought to have been highly prized by the Vikings. Surviving ninth-century silver is usually good quality (over 90% precious metal), an important feature for the Vikings who carefully screened for debased metal. It is also highly decorative, frequently depicting lively, semi-naturalistic animals in the so-called Trewhiddle style (as seen on the brooch below). These are given added emphasis by niello inlay, a black copper/ silver sulphide, which provides a striking contrast with a silver background.  In Viking hands, such silver could be worn as high-status dress items, or broken up as a form of hack-silver currency.

A fragmented Anglo-Saxon silver brooch with niello inlay, depicting 9th century animal ornament.
The brooch formed part of an Anglo-Saxon hoard from Norfolk.  We know from the date of coins found with the brooch that it was buried in or around 869 AD, the year the Viking Great Army invaded East Anglia. The brooch is 95% silver. (Copyright Portable Antiquities Scheme) 
But the Anglo-Saxon brooches from the Galloway hoard are unique in their context, and other Anglo-Saxon items in Viking hoards notably few and far between. The largest Viking hoard on record from Britain, from Cuerdale, Lancashire, contains over 1,100 silver artefacts, but just a handful of Anglo-Saxon pieces, including fragments from a disc brooch, a brooch pin, and fragments of a strap-end and mount.  Anglo-Saxon silver jewellery is also rare within Scandinavia, suggesting that the Vikings only occasionally transported it home. Rare examples include two broken and cut Anglo-Saxon disc brooches from Sweden (from the Sturkö and Igelösa hoards), which likely functioned as bullion currency.

Why this unexpected absence? The Galloway hoard demonstrates that Anglo-Saxon silver objects must have passed through Viking hands, and Anglo-Saxon silver coins are a common component of hoards from Britain. Clearly, it is not a question about access to silver. 

The answer may lie in the form of the silver itself. Large disc brooches were not part of Scandinavian dress, while the distinctive animal and vegetal decoration of precious metalwork set it apart from indigenous Viking styles.  I think it’s likely that Anglo-Saxon silver objects were routinely melted down into forms that the Vikings found more ‘acceptable’, such as ingots and rings.  Silver is these forms fit more readily with the Viking aesthetic and could be easily assimilated into their currency systems.

In principle, then, the Scandinavian bullion economy made use of all silver, regardless of its form. But in reality, it preferenced silver in a limited range of homegrown and instantly recognisable shapes.