By Dani Trynoski
Humans are like magpies. Or maybe squirrels make for a better analogy. Either way, some of us like to collect stuff. The need to collect manifests itself as a hobby, affliction, or obsession depending on the person, however it usually has interesting results. One of those results is medieval hoards.
These buried collections of shiny, sparkly, special objects have been a source of wonder and discovery for over a thousand years. Ever since people buried them, others have dug them up and been impressed. It’s only in the last 100 years (give or take a few decades) that archaeology as a science has taken a more ethical approach to recovering, documenting and analyzing these collections. I’m sure that the 19th century “archaeologists” had a grand time taking early medieval silver coins to the local alehouse and buying endless rounds, but now hoards are an important scientific resource. They provide a window into a person’s mindset at a specific point in time; it’s a literal time capsule reflecting someone’s decisions and actions.
The purpose of depositing hoards is debated in the archaeological community but it’s a concrete fact that lots of information can be gained through studies of hoards’ location and contents. Discussions on economy, religion, industrial practices, historic travel, societal structures, and more can all take place using evidence from hoards. They’ve been excavated throughout Europe and Asia and here are five of my favorites. Let’s take a look at these wonderful time capsules and the secrets within them.
Deposited near Buskerud, Norway. Excavated 1834. Contains 207 pieces: two gold torcs, three gold arm rings, one gold brooch made from an adapted harness mount, 20 coins adapted to be pendants, 32 glass beads, and 149 mixed objects of silver or gold. It’s unusual for the high amount of gold and the complete preservation of the jewelry items. This hoard was likely deposited in the late eighth or early ninth century and now can be found in the Kulturhistorisk Museum in Oslo. The eclectic mix of luxurious gold, silver, and glass beads makes for a really interesting glimpse into Viking bling.
Vale of York Hoard
Deposited near Harrogate, England. Excavated 2007. This hefty treasure trove contains 617 coins and 65 silver pieces stuffed into a container with gold lining and silver-gilt exterior. The container was likely made in the ninth century in France and has elaborate Carolingian-style decoration. The coins have a mixed origin and were minted in England, Ireland, Baghdad, Birka, North Africa, Russia, Afghanistan, and France. The hacksilver represents clipped coins, brooches, arm rings, torcs, and ingots. One stand-out item is a twisted gold arm ring, possibly from Viking-occupied Ireland. This collection was likely buried in the tenth century after the Vikings were expelled from York; the British Museum information gives a date of 927 or 928 a.d.
Arlanda Airport Hoard
Deposited near Arlanda International Airport, Stockholm, Sweden. Excavated 2008. This enormous coin hoard was a surprise for archaeologists excavating a Bronze Age tomb near Stockholm’s largest passenger airport. The hoard was likely deposited in the mid-to-late ninth century which is earlier than other comparable coin hoards. The majority of its 472 silver coins are Arabic coins minted between 800-840 a.d., with points of origin across the Arabic peninsula and western Asia. Another unusual quality of this hoard is its placement on the mainland. Many of Sweden’s coin hoards are on islands in the Baltic with Gotland receiving an extremely high number of hoard deposits.
Deposited near Cuerdale, England. Excavated 1840. The largest Viking hoard discovered in Britain at the time of publication, this collection includes over 8,600 pieces and was likely buried in the early 10th century. The Spillings Hoard (see below) is the only known hoard to be heavier than the Cuerdale find. Most of the hoard is in the British Museum, with select pieces on display in Oxford and Étaples, France. The massive collection of silver contains a what’s-what of Viking metal objects: torcs, brooches, ingots, hacksilver, chains, and coins. Most of the recognizable objects in the hoard were damaged before being buried; likely to be used in a weight-exchange economy or in preparation for being melted down. The coins represent mints in England, Scandinavia, Italy, France, and Arabic territories. It was discovered in a lead box and remained complete, minus a coin for each of the workmen involved, after being seized by the landowner’s bailiffs to turn in to the Crown.
Deposited near Slite, Gotland, Sweden. Excavated 1999. The largest known Viking hoard, this enormous collection of silver weighs in at 148 lbs/67 kg. It was recovered in two groups however it was likely buried together. It contains 486 silver arm rings which makes up 60% of the entire collection. With the arm rings and a few pieces of hacksilver there are over 14,295 coins with 14,200 being of Arabic origin. Later excavations uncovered evidence of building foundations and flooring around the find spots, bronze scrap pieces, and remnants of chests. Likely deposited in the ninth century, this hoard is just the largest of many finds on Gotland. So many Viking hoards and deposits are recovered on the island of Gotland that amateur metal detecting outside of an approved scientific survey is banned. The hoard is in the collection of the Gotland Museum.
To learn more about how hoards can be used to study medieval economy and society, read Danielle’s Master’s Thesis.
You can read about ten more hoards at this link: Click Here
This post on the Vale of York Hoard offers additional resources on hoards at the end of the article: Click Here