Small doors on the Viking age: The Anglo-Saxon coins in Norway project
By Elina Screen
British Academy Review, Issue 24 (2014)
Introduction: In 1866, Gabriel Olson Sletheid, a Norwegian farmer from Slethei in the region of Rogaland, discovered a hoard of about 340 silver coins from the Viking age under a stone on his farm. Finds of antiquities had long been reported and recorded in 19th-century Norway, and thus the Slethei hoard, as it is known today, also came to the attention of the authorities. Claudius Jacob Schive – a toll inspector by profession, and enthusiastic student of coins – undertook to catalogue the find, which proved mostly to contain Anglo-Saxon coins of King Æthelred II (978-1016). Schive’s work was complicated by the state of the coins, many of which had oxidised in their time in the ground and broken into very small fragments, but in 1869 he was able to publish a list of 179 coins and 113 larger fragments, and the 1,000 or so tiny fragments he could not identify were put neatly to one side for future numismatists to tackle.
I first encountered the Slethei hoard and Claudius Jacob Schive in 2004-5, when I started to catalogue all the Anglo-Saxon and later British coins in Norway up to 1272 for the longstanding British Academy publication series, the Sylloge of Coins of the British Isles (‘sylloge’ in this context means an illustrated catalogue). I visited museums in Oslo, Trondheim, Bergen and Stavanger to catalogue and photograph all the British and AngloSaxon coins in their collections, and research all the individual hoards, finds and donations that had built up each collection. Chronologically, the coins range from two Iron-Age Celtic coins to 65 English Long Cross coins struck in the period 1247-72. But it is the Anglo-Saxon coins that came to Norway during the Viking age that dominate the catalogue – above all coins of Æthelred II and his Danish successor Cnut the Great (1016-35), which together make up 80 per cent of all the coins in the Norwegian collections up to 1272. Some 4,230 coins and rather more years later than anticipated, the two-volume catalogue of the Norwegian collections is complete, and it is a good moment to take stock. Why is it so important to publish fully illustrated catalogues of coins like this? What do we learn from the coins and this project?
In many ways, the Slethei hoard epitomises the ‘Anglo-Saxon coins in Norway’ project for me, because it shows how much potential Anglo-Saxon coins have as sources for understanding Anglo-Saxon England and Norway in the Viking age, and reveals the questions that remain to be answered. It also opens up the history of museums and collecting – and the individuals who played a key part in publishing and preserving the material along the way. Other numismatists had helpfully tackled many of the Slethei fragments in the intervening century or so. But at a personal level, the moment when the well-ordered trays of Slethei coins came to a halt, and instead I was confronted by the daunting challenge of a plastic box containing 400 or so unsorted minute fragments, stands out for me – together with the excitement of discovering another tiny box, containing a unique Anglo-Saxon coin from the hoard, complete with Schive’s original ticket describing the coin and identifying it as unparalleled.