A new study reveals that silver coins from the medieval Islamic world were incredibly prevalent in Viking-Age Scandinavia. In fact, Scandinavian museums possess almost 500,000 dirhams, more than any other place in the world and shows that the Norse had an intense desire for silver.
These findings come from a new article by Manar Hammad, a French scholar and archaeologist. He himself was “stunned” by the discovery of such a vast amount of dirhams existing in Scandinavia, and examined the reasons why the Norse were so interested in these coins.
His article points out that these silver dirhams come from hoards that were buried between the years 770 and 1050, but subsequently forgotten about and only started being rediscovered in the 19th century. Hammad notes that these hoards were particularly prevalent along the coasts of Sweden, and the island of Gotland (a major trading area in the Middle Ages) has over recorded 350 dirham hoards. While dirham hoards exist in Denmark and Norway, they can also be found in much larger numbers in northern Germany, the Baltics, and well into Russia and as far as the coast of the Caspian Sea. The coins themselves were mainly minted in the Middle East, but also from as far away as central Asia and Morocco.
Hammad explains the coins were part of a significant trade network that had been established between Scandinavia and the Middle East as early as the 8th century – furs and slaves were exported by the Norse, and they brought back with them the dirhams.
However, in the Islamic world, gold dinars and copper fals were widely used, yet the Norse rarely included them in their hoards. Hammad finds that this was a deliberate choice:
When the Scandinavians selected silver dirhams to be among the monies constituting the monetary offer in Dar al-Islam, they dispelled gold and copper. In so doing, they overvalued dirhams and modified their meaning: they did not consider them as standards for the measure of value, but as objects valued for themselves. No other European population had such a passion for silver, no other area collected dirhams with such intensity.
He points out this desire was not just monetary but also had social elements – the Norse traders would deliberately return from long voyages through Eastern Europe and the Middle East with these silver coins to showcase their wealth and power. Eventually, they would be deposited into the ground for some later use – perhaps as a gift or to finance future expeditions.
However, the coming of Christianity and the development of political states at the beginning of the eleventh century would drastically alter Scandinavia and the Norse. The connections with the Middle East would drop off as elites focused on building feudal power at home. As Hammad explains, “silver was no longer useful to obtain glory and social status. Land had replaced silver as modal object invested with the competence to mediate the relationship to power.”
Therefore the many dirham hoards spread throughout Scandinavia and other parts of Europe would become forgotten, only to become found again when farmers began using heavier ploughs and modern equipment. Even more are now being found because of the work of metal detectors.
The article, “500,000 Dirhams in Scandinavia, from Mobile Silver to Land Rent,” is published in Reading Memory Sites Through Signs: Hiding into Landscape, by Amsterdam University Press. You can read the article from Manar Hammad’s Academai.edu page.
See also: Viking Currency
Top Image: The Årstadskatten Hoard: A large silver coin find from Viking Age Norway, which includes Arabic dirhams. Now on display at the History Museum of Norway. Photo by Bjoertvedt / Wikimedia Commons