The Viking world thrived on chaos. Power struggles, political intrigues, violent conquests, expulsions, and climate turmoil rocked medieval Scandinavia with astonishing frequency. When trouble came too close, Vikings took to the earth, burying their most prized possessions in the ground. Mysterious and dazzling, Viking treasure hoards offer insight into what meant the most to the Norse and their efforts to protect their precious things.
1. The Nørremølle Viking Treasure Hoard: Evidence of Violence
In 2006, a metal detectorist on the island of Bornholm got a hit. A little digging revealed many silver objects. The responsible explorer contacted the Museum of Bornholm, which began its own investigation. Subsequent excavation revealed a tan ceramic vessel with no decoration save a stamp, indicating that it was of the Baltic Sea ware variety. Inside and around this vessel, archaeologists recovered silver jewelry, hacksilver, and 1,194 coins. The coins hailed from England, Germany, the Near East, Scandinavia, and Bohemia. Together, they comprised the largest hoard ever discovered in Denmark.
Archaeologists explored the area around the hoard. They found trenches, pits, and post holes, indicative of a structure. Interspersed around the structure, archaeologists recovered a soapstone vessel, a broken amber bead, and some iron objects. Archaeologists found post holes filled with charcoal as well as burned waddle-and-daub. They soon concluded that the structure had mostly likely been a home that had burned.
By nature, hoards raise a lot of questions. Why would anyone bury their riches in the ground and never return to collect them? The context of the burned Viking Age structure nearby raises additional questions in the case of the Nørremølle Hoard. Did trouble befall the residents of the house? Did they bury their treasures as enemies bore down on their home? Was it too dangerous for them to ever come back or did they simply find a better life? The rich hoard of Nørremølle offers more questions than answers, despite its great size.
2. The Vale of York Hoard: Hack Silver and Exotic Coins
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In 2007, another metal detector rang in the valley of the River Nidd, once home to the Anglo-Saxon kingdom of Northumbria. The detectorists dug into the earth and discovered jewelry, ingots, hack-silver, a silver-gilt Frankish vessel, a gold arm-ring, five silver arm rings, and 617 coins. They had discovered a Viking hoard of considerable importance. The hoard’s contents shared similarities with many other Viking hoards. Hack-silver, silver cut from other items of jewelry or ornaments, appears frequently in otherhoards and would have been used as currency during the medieval period.
An Inspection of the silver vessel revealed the cluster of 617 coins. Unsurprisingly, many coins originated from the Danelaw. The coins found in the Vale of York Hoard offer insight into the Vikings’ connection with the wider world. Three Anglo-Saxon kings appear on the coins: Alfred, Athelstan, and Edward the Elder. Other coins hail from the Carolingian empire. Samanid dirhams are present as well. The numismatic evidence suggested that the hoard dated to the mid-late 920s. During the early tenth century, King Athelstan took York from the Vikings and united the English under one king. This context adds intrigue to the Vale of York Hoard. Could Vikings fleeing the newly united Anglo-Saxon kingdom have buried what they could not carry? Or did they bury their riches with plans of returning to retake York? Only the Vikings know.
3. Hoen Hoard: An Offering to the Gods?
In 1834, a laborer working to drain a bog on a Norwegian farm got the surprise of a lifetime when his spade hit a Viking Age hoard. A large array of goods emerged from the hoard including 54 gold and silver objects, twenty gold coins, and 132 beads made of glass or semi-precious stones. As with most hoards, interpretations of the Hoen Hoard vary.
The Saga of the Ynglings highlights the Vikings’ belief that the Norse god Odin required them to place their valuables in the earth. The hoard could thus be an offering to the Norse pantheon or preparation for the afterlife. But the Hoen Hoard may also have been a means of safekeeping for the living. In any case, the hoard’s long deposition indicates that the Vikings knew how to keep their most precious goods safe.
4. Silver Hoards of Gotland: Possible Marriage Downpayments
The Swedish island of Gotland sits in the Baltic Sea. Over the years, some 400 silver hoards have been recorded on the island. On average, these hoards contain fewer than 500 silver coins. Most appear to have been deposited around 900-1100 CE. Why are so many hoards concentrated on one island?
It is a question scholars have answered in different ways. One explanation holds that the medieval Scandinavians may have participated in a bridewealth system, where grooms and their families made marriage payments to brides’ families. This theory holds that the burial of the hoard completed the bridewealth transaction, offering an explanation for why so many hoards were never retrieved. If correct did the need for riches to pay bridewealth influence the Vikings’ voyages abroad?
5. The Spillings Hoards: Travelers’ Riches
Some of the largest hoards discovered on Gotland are the Spillings hoards. These hoards contain the typical mix of silver bullion, rings, and bracelets. The hoards are unique in containing horseshoe-shaped bangles native to Gotland. The hoards also contained 14,300 dirhams from the Near East, over 80 percent of which had been broken. With the other silver bullion, scholars speculate that the Spillings Hoards represent the efforts of Viking “entrepreneurs,” who journeyed abroad, engaged in various money-making endeavors, and maintained a wide range of lucrative contacts.
6. Herefordshire Hoard: A Stunning Treasure Trove
The contents of the Herefordshire Hoard remains shrouded in mystery. A few objects from the hoard suggest a rich array of goods. The hoard contained at least thirty silver coins of Anglo-Saxon, Frankish, or Near Eastern origin. The coins offer some idea of when the hoard may have been deposited. The Anglo-Saxon currency includes coins issued by Archbishop Wulfred of Canterbury (c. 805-832 CE), Alfred the Great (c. 871-899 CE), and Ceolwulf II of Mercia (c. 874-879 CE). From France, a denier from the reign of Louis the Pious (c. 814-840) was included in the hoard. A silver dirham from the Umayyad dynasty was also found along with a silver ingot.
A crystal pendant encased in gold was found that dated somewhere from the 5th to 7th centuries CE. Another intriguing find from the Herefordshire Hoard included a gold octagonal ring decorated with alternating floral designs. The hoard also held a gold arm-ring with an animal head clasp. These items suggest that the Herefordshire Hoard shared many qualities typical of Viking-Age hoards, but archaeologists have no idea where the hoard came from or how rich or large it really was.
Metal detectorists found the Herefordshire Hoard, like so many others. But unlike many other discoveries, this hoard was not reported to the authorities. Instead, the finders concealed their discovery and tried to sell the items recovered. Four people were arrested, found guilty, and sentenced to jail terms for stealing the hoard. While several pieces of the hoard were recovered, archaeologists have not been able to relocate the place of the hoard’s original deposition. Thus, due to the destructive actions of a few, many questions about the Herefordshire Hoard may never be answered.
7. The Huxley Hoard: Viking Arm Rings
In 2004, the Lune Valley Metal Detecting Club spread out across Huxley in Cheshire, England. One metal detector chirped, signaling the discovery of pieces of lead. The metal detectorists noticed punched marks decorating the metal, suggesting that the objects were Scandinavian in origin. An archaeologist hurried to the discovery site and excavated the area. The hoard that emerged contained silver arm rings and lead fragments and has been dated to around 900 CE. The lead fragments were interpreted as evidence that the hoard had originally been stored in a wooden box lined with lead.
The majority of the hoard consisted of broad-band arm rings. The arm rings are silver with some light decorations. This style of arm ring was typical of Viking Age silver production in Ireland from approximately 850-950 CE.
These arm rings had multiple functions. Vikings wore the bands as a form of adornment, like beads or brooches, or ring pins. Made of silver, the arm rings could also be used as currency in the bullion economy. The contents of the Huxley Hoard highlight the diversity of medieval Scandinavia’s economy and the importance of seemingly small things.
Scholars remain intrigued by how the Viking hoard found its way to Huxley. In 902 CE, the Irish expelled the Vikings from Ireland. One interpretation suggests the Vikings fleeing Ireland buried the hoard of silver. However, the hoard may also have been buried by wary merchants or raiders traveling around the British Isles. The tenth century witnessed frequent Viking excursions in Britain; thus, there are many ways the Huxley Hoard could have come to be buried in England.
8. The Cuerdale Hoard: Savings or a War Chest?
In 1840, laborers were busy at work, repairing an embankment, when they made a glittering discovery. Along the River Ribble in Lancashire, they removed a lead-lined chest, brimming with some 8,600 objects, including ingots, amulets, chains, rings, and pieces of brooches and armlets. Analysis of the hoard’s contents revealed fragments of penannular brooches from Viking Ireland and arm rings and neck rings from Scandinavia. A buckle from France and a fragment of a Pictish silver comb provided evidence of other contacts. Coins make up the largest portion of the hoard with 7,000 coins from the Danelaw, the Anglo-Saxon kingdom, the Carolingian empire, eastern Europe, the Near East, and the Byzantine empire.
The Cuerdale Hoard has been dated to the 10th century. Scholars speculate about what motivated the burial of such an enormous amount of goods. One theory suggests that Vikings expelled from Ireland, amassed great riches as a sort of war chest that would allow them to return to Ireland. A less dramatic interpretation views the hoard as the savings of a wealthy Viking leader, who simply buried the hoard in the ground to keep it safe. The Cuerdale Hoard remains one of the largest Viking-Age hoards ever discovered and a window into the amount of wealth achieved and protected by medieval Scandinavians abroad.
9. The Galloway Hoard: A Unique Viking Treasure
Discovered in 2014, the Galloway Hoard has continued to fascinate scholars and the public alike. Excavation of the hoard in southwest Scotland revealed deposits in different layers of the earth. The Galloway Hoard actually comprised four separate depositions. The first layer of the Galloway Hoard resembled the Huxley Hoard with silver arm rings, ingots, hack silver, and a silver pectoral cross. A layer of gravel lay below the first deposit, possibly offering a level of protection to more valuable goods.
Below the gravel lay piles of silver, more arm-rings, gold, and closed vessel. Other items in the hoard proved more unique and less typical of the standard Viking Age hoard. Archaeologists identified a silver pendant cross, a gold bird-shaped pin, a silver-gilt lidded vessel, a hither-to-unknown style of Anglo-Saxon brooch, golden jewels, and a rock crystal container insider of a silk-lined pouch. Due to its size and the unique items inside, the Galloway Hoard has been named one of the most significant hoards ever discovered in the British Isles. The unique items and previously unknown types of brooches highlight how much scholars still have to learn about the Viking Age and its most notorious people.