Another Viking hoard – what can they tell us?

DSC07020Vikings have been in the news again recently with the discovery and unveiling of the Watlington hoard. As with many such finds, we owe thanks to an amatuer metal-detectorist – James Mather. Mr Mather has been detecting without much luck for more than 20 years and this is certainly his biggest find! It is to his credit that he immediately contacted the Portable Antiquities Scheme (PAS), which is a Department of Culture Media and Sport (DCMS) funded project that encourages the voluntary recording of archaeological objects found by members of the public, by any means, in England and Wales. David Williams, the local finds officer for the PAS then organised the fairly rapid transport of the finds to the British Museum where they have been cleaned, conserved and assessed. The coins in the hoard date it to 870 AD/CE.

In a British Museum press release Mr Mather said “Discovering this exceptional hoard has been a really great experience and helping excavate it with archaeologists from the PAS on my 60th birthday was the icing on the cake! It highlights how responsible metal detecting, supportive landowners and the PAS contribute to national archaeological heritage. I hope these amazing artefacts can be displayed by a local museum to be enjoyed by generations to come.” The value of the hoard goes beyond the financial, although that may be considerable. Dr Gareth Williams, who is Curator of Early Medieval Coinage said “The hoard comes from a key moment in English history. At around the same time, Alfred of Wessex decisively defeated the Vikings, and Ceolwulf II, the last king of Mercia quietly disappeared from the historical record in uncertain circumstances. Alfred and his successors then forged a new kingdom of England by taking control of Mercia, before conquering the regions controlled by the Vikings. This hoard has the potential to provide important new information on relations between Mercia and Wessex at the beginning of that process.” Of course it is totally coincidental that the recent BBC 2 drama The Last Kingdom was airing at the time all this activity was going on!

This is not the first ‘hoard’ Viking material to be found in Britain. Some of the more famous ones are Goldsborough, SkaillSkye and Talnotrie. Perhaps the most famous is the Cuerdale Hoard which contained over 7,000 coins. The majority of coins have been found in England although they have also been found in Ireland and Scotland as these examples show. There are also single find spots such as Claverly in Shropshire and Ardeer in Ayrshire, Finding a hoard is relatively rare, yet they do tell us much about both Vikings and others. Hoards are a snapshot of a moment in time, perhaps when the owner(s) of the objects saw themselves under threat or in danger. Certainly the period when the Vikings were in Britain was a turbulent one and it is easy to conjure up the image of the war-like Vikings bent on plunder! However, hoards such as these, and evidence from burials tells us more.

Hoards such as the examples above are usually associated with the Viking occupation, near what has been termed the Dublin-York axis and coastal areas close to the Irish Sea. Most of the coins are of silver as this was the currency of the Baltic lands. Viking trade however, extended far beyond the region. Their trade networks stretched into the Iberian peninsula in the west and to baghdad and beyond in the east. For example, the Skaill hoard weighed in at over 8kg of silver objects, but in this there were only 21 coins. Nineteen of these are dirhams from the Middle East, none being later than one of al-Mustakfl the Abbasid Caliph in Baghdad from 944 to 946. In the National Museums of Scotland the earliest recorded coin is an Abbasid coin dating to the 9th century CE bearing the name of the Caliph al-Mutawakkil which was found as part of the Talnotrie hoard in Kirkcudbrightshire. Coins in these hoards are from the 9th-10th centuries and were minted in Baghdad, Samarquand and Tashkent.

If you would like to see these coins then coins from the Goldsborough hoard can be seen in the British Museum and from the Skiall hoard in the Museum of Scotland with other examples are found in other museums e.g. Birmingham Museum and Art Gallery. One of the more puzzling numismatic finds is that of ‘Offa’s Dinar’ a coin now on display in the British Museum. It is a copy of a gold dinar of the Abbasid Caliph Al-Mansur, the original of which is dated to 157 AH (AD 774). Along with the Islamic Arabic inscriptions, there is on one side the Latin inscription “Offa Rex”, (Offa reigns). It has been suggested this is proof Offa wanted to declare publicly his conversion to Islam by making coins with the Muslim creed on them and that he may well have visited Spain where he learnt about Islam. Unfortunately, the coin in question provides no evidence of Offa’s supposed conversion. Perhaps the most obvious thing to point out is that the Latin inscription is upside-down in relation to the Arabic text. Further to this, although the Arabic text is generally a good reproduction, the word for “year” has been bungled. It thus seems then that neither Offa, his coin-makers nor his officials could read Arabic and as the first Latin or English translations of the Qur’an were made after Offa’s time, it also seems certain that there was little or no understanding of what was being stamped on the coin.

So, a Viking hoard can tell us about the Vikings, but it can also be a window into a new world, one where the connections between cultures can be seen to be played out in unexpected ways.

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