Wednesday, 8 November 2017

Islamic coins as jewellery: finds from Viking England

It is well-known that the Vikings had extensive and deep contacts with the Islamic world. In the archaeological record, this is manifest most strikingly in the tens of thousands of Arabic silver coins (dirhams) that survive in Viking-Age hoards, settlements and graves across the Scandinavian world. The number of extant coins indicates the huge importance of Eastern trade routes via Russia, particularly during the tenth century. In this century (mostly in its first half), it is estimated that 125 million whole dirhams reached Northern Europe from Central Asia. 125 million!

For the most part, dirhams were treated as high-quality pieces of silver, to be used within the Scandinavian metal-weight economy. But a significant minority of them were used more creatively, and turned into ornaments to be worn on necklaces, primarily as part of female dress. This phenomenon has long been attested within Scandinavia. But a few recent finds raise the possibility that the Scandinavian fashion for dirham ornaments was also transferred to Viking-settled England.

One such dirham-pendant recently came to light in Lincolnshire, part of the Danelaw area of Scandinavian settlement. It is a Samanid coin, minted in 905/6, so will have reached England in the 910s at the earliest. In addition to being pierced for suspension, it is gilded on both sides. A diagonal area without gilding may have once held a pin-fitting, suggesting further re-use as a brooch.
Gilded and pierced Samanid dirham, minted in 905/6, probably in Balkh in modern-day Afghanistan.  The diagonal strip of silver may indicate the location of a secondary pin-fitting, now lost. PAS 'Find-ID' SWYOR-647094.
Normally, dirhams just have a single piercing, suggesting they hung from a necklace. This is also supported by their position in graves, around the neck or upper chest of the deceased. But multiple, opposing piercings are seen on coins strung on pendant chains. These are more elaborate necklaces featuring multiple coins, usually separated by rings or multiple silver chains, that are found mainly in Finland, Estonia and southern Scandinavia in the later part of the Viking Age. The one below comes from a hoard deposited after c. 1120 AD in Blekinge, southern Sweden. It has 10 coin-pendants, including Islamic issues and coins from Western European and Byzantium.

A chain of coin-pendants with riveted suspension loops from Blekinge,
southern Sweden. Image copyright Statens Historiska Museet.
A dirham with multiple piercings is also known from North Yorkshire. The holes probably result from riveted attachment loops, now detached. The dirham may have once been suspended taut on a pendant chain - possibly in England, but perhaps more likely in the Baltic/ Scandinavia. But the fact that it was found singly in the Danelaw suggests it was eventually lost during an economic transaction. This coin, then, had multiple 'lives', as a coin, ornament and, finally, a piece of bullion currency. 
A Khazar-imitation dirham, minted in the late 9th or early 10th century, with 4 piercings. Found in North Yorkshire.
PAS 'Find-ID' YORYM-FB7039.  
Dirhams carry several lines of Arabic script, including the name and date of the ruling caliph, the location and year of the minting and the name of the mint master. They also carry quotations from the Quran. Was this text comprehensible to the wearers of the dirham pendants? Almost certainly not. 

But this is not to say that the text itself was meaningless. Indeed, the position of the piercings on Islamic dirhams shows that they are usually orientated so that the lines of text are positioned either vertically or horizontally i.e. symmetrically, ensuring that the script was clearly visible (as on the example above). This suggests that dirham-pendants were seen as more than just decorative items. They were also symbolic - perhaps signalling the owner's access to high-quality silver coins from the East, or simply to exotic goods, brought from afar. As the pendant chain above demonstrates, dirhams can appear next to other types of coins on the same necklace/ chain, including Western European coins displaying crosses. Such necklaces seem to be making a statement about the wearer's diverse and far-reaching cultural contacts, as well as silver wealth. 

Monday, 17 July 2017

Did Viking women settle in England?

This is a contentious and long-standing question for students of the Viking Age. And it’s one bound up in the wider debate about the scale of western Viking settlement more broadly. Those who argue that the Vikings who settled in England in the late ninth and tenth century (following decades of raiding) were a numerically small warrior-elite see the Scandinavian settlement as a largely masculine affair.  But those who (like me - see my recent debate paper in Antiquity or a popular article here) argue that the settlement was large-scale and involved whole families migrating across the North Sea maintain that Scandinavian women were integral to the establishment of new farmsteads.

In the past, the small number of known Scandinavian female burials in England has given fuel to the argument that few Viking women settled in England.  But over the last two decades, a fresh source of data has emerged giving an entirely different perspective. New discoveries of female Scandinavian jewellery, made by metal-detecting, offer the first tangible evidence for a substantial contribution of Scandinavian women to the Viking settlements.

A Scandinavian snake pendant (Borre style) found in Norfolk. This pendant would have hung from a woman's necklace. The snake may have acted like an amulet, protecting the wearer from misfortune. Image copyright PAS. 

To date, over 150 female jewellery items from Scandinavia have been discovered in England – almost exclusively in areas known to have been settled by the Vikings (East Anglia, Lincolnshire and Yorkshire). These items are brooches and pendants, often decorated in the popular Viking art styles of the time: Borre and Jellinge. They are identical to jewellery items found in Scandinavia, especially in southern Scandinavia (modern-day Denmark). And there are lots of different types – trefoil brooches, with three ‘arms’, small domed disc brooches decorated with animal faces and contorted bodies, different styles of pendant, some in the form of snakes (see above), others disc-shaped……the list goes on and on. Most are made of copper or lead alloys and are not especially high-status - more Zara than Prada. In archaeological terms, 150 is a lot. And we have to remember that these are only the items that were lost at the time (and not recovered), survived in the soil for over 1000 years, found by a detectorist, and reported to the relevant bodies. 150 is likely just a tiny fraction of the actual number of brooches circulating at the time.

While the pendants were worn suspended from necklaces, the brooches would have been pinned to the chest, with larger brooches securing an outer cloak. Anglo-Saxon women also wore brooches, but the types I’m talking about look very different – in their shape, decoration and even their pin fittings. They would have stuck out a mile if worn in rural Norfolk circa 895.

A Scandinavian disc brooch in the Barre style. Three staring animal heads poke out from
between the lobes of a trefoil. Found in rural Norfolk in 2014. Image copyright PAS.

A large Scandinavian trefoil brooch, worn to pin a cloak, decorated with Borre-style interlacing animals. Unusually, this brooch was found in an area not known to have been settled by the Vikings. But the lack of pin-fittings may indicate it had been recycled. Image copyright PAS. 

But do these jewellery items necessarily imply the presence of Scandinavian women? Couldn't they simply have been imported trade goods, or represent local products that were worn by Anglo-Saxon women in imitation of Scandinavian fashions? In my opinion, no. The material is far too diverse to represent the average stock of a merchant, while technical features such as the pin arrangement on the reverse of the brooch, and even the metal alloy, indicates that they were not made according to Anglo-Saxon methods. Moreover, the distribution of this material is rural and very widespread, as if these items had been lost by women on or near their farms. If items were being imported and sold on, we would expect clustering in towns.

Pin-fittings on the reverse of brooches, including the middle loop with the ring attached, show that these brooches were manufactured in line with Scandinavian traditions. This brooch has been gilded to look like gold, but it was made of copper-alloy.
The jewellery offers a tangible marker of a female Viking presence in England. But other evidence also points to Scandinavian women living in England. Scandinavian feminine names are preserved in minor place-names, referring to fields, streets and rivers (names that are likely to have been coined by local Norse-speaking farming populations). Hildr in Hilderholm (Lincolnshire), Gerđr in Gerdeswelle (Norfolk), and, interestingly, from the perspective of Scandinavian women in towns, Guđrún in Goodramgate (York), are all examples. Place-names incorporating women’s names and ending in ‘by’ (meaning village/ settlement) and ‘thorpe’ (meaning secondary settlement) suggest independent landholding by women bearing Scandinavian names. Gunnhildr in Gunby (Yorkshire), Ragnhildr in Raventhorpe (Lincolnshire and Yorkshire), and Ingiríđr in Ingerthorpe (Yorkshire), are all examples.

More broadly, it is likely that women who shared a common, Scandinavian culture with male settlers had a decisive role in preserving that culture in a new setting. In historical migration contexts, it is typically women, more than men, who maintain international kinship connections, store knowledge about personal histories, preserve social customs and adjust cultural practices. Critically, the mother’s cultural background usually filters down to the next generation more strongly than the father’s. In the context of the Viking settlement of England, we know that Old Norse survived in some parts of England into the tenth and eleventh century. A prerequisite for this must have been the presence of Norse-speaking women, using Scandinavian speech in the home and passing their language on to their children (The alternative scenario: that Scandinavian male settlers married local, English-speaking women, who then learned Old Norse and raised their children in that language, or bilingually, is far less likely).

The evidence for a female contribution to the Viking settlement of England continues to grow, as new finds are made year on year. Perhaps it’s time we re-cast our image of the Vikings in England, to include women (and children) alongside men.


You can read more about the debate over the scale of Viking settlement in England (including my response to a recent controversial DNA study) in the latest (July/ August) issue of British Archaeology Magazine, and here.

Friday, 20 January 2017

The dual-currency economy of the Danelaw

Cowrie shell money issued in late 18th century West Africa.

The co-existence of two or more distinct currencies is a common phenomenon throughout history. In ancient Greece, silver bullion circulated alongside coin. In medieval Scandinavia, weighed silver, cattle and grain were common forms of payment, even within the same transaction. French francs and local cowry shell money were concurrent currencies in nineteenth-century West Africa – one of many examples where ‘state’ or ‘colonial’ moneys were introduced to societies with pre-existing, ‘local’ or ‘indigenous’ currencies. 

As I argue in a new Antiquity paper, a dual-currency economy also operated in the Danelaw region of eastern England, where the Vikings settled, following a period of raiding activity, in the late ninth century. Here, a wealth of new archaeological evidence indicates that the Vikings introduced a bullion currency based on weighed and tested precious metal. Over the last few years, I’ve documented evidence for hundreds of single finds of Scandinavian silver ingots, chopped up bits of ring and foreign coin, as well as standardised weights, all presumably lost by accident in areas where they were in frequent use. Yet it’s clear that this bullion economy coincided with a second silver currency, namely coinage, some of it minted by the Vikings themselves. Critically, bullion and coin circulated at the same time and in the same areas for 60 years or so (roughly 870-930 AD): a good two generations by the standards of the day.

In the Danelaw area of northern and eastern England, bullion and coin co-existed in a dual-currency economy
How did this work in practice? Was the use of coin and bullion split down ethnic or cultural lines (those using bullion and coin having little to do with each other)? Or did Scandinavian settlers use coin in addition to bullion, perhaps using different media for different monetary purposes?  One interesting pattern is that locally minted coins -the official Danelaw currency- are rarely treated as bullion in Viking-settled areas.  They are rarely tested or cut, although they could of course have been weighed – a treatment that would leave no physical trace. This suggests to me that the Viking settlers used coinage, alongside bullion, perhaps preserving coin for use in towns where exchange was closely monitored and bullion finds rare. The purse of a Scandinavian trader likely contained bullion as well as local coin, the duality of payment media ensuring that she was prepared for all exchange eventualities.

Why preserve bullion, when coinage was widely available? Underlying this question is the assumption that coinage is somehow ‘better’ than other forms of money: more sophisticated than crude weighed silver currency because it (unlike bullion) requires authentication and regulation by a state, and more convenient because it reduces the number of ‘transaction costs’.

A silver ingot from Yorkshire weighing nearly 20 grams.  Ingots such as this were arguably more suitable than coinage for use in large-value transactions. Copyright PAS.

But there were many advantages in using bullion.  It was better suited than coin for large transactions (no need to count out 100 pennies when a single ingot would do the job). It was also easier to exchange with international trade partners, since raw silver, unlike coinage, was acceptable across national frontiers. Silver bullion was easy to test for quality (via nicking), whereas contemporary coins could be a bit dodgy, with frequently low silver contents, running the risk that they might not be accepted by your trading partner. Whereas coins were periodically called in for reminting (and thus, one’s coin stock was effectively taxed), silver bullion was not regulated, and in this way retained its value over time. It is also possible that the performance of a bullion transaction was tied to Scandinavian identity in England. Maintaining a bullion economy may have been a means by which Viking settlers marked themselves out as different from the local Anglo-Saxons.