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Homepage Archives Open in new window Index (10/2007) Relic Hunter (06/2007) Relic Hunter (01/2008)   Vol. 41 October 2007 
The Relic Hunter
As seen in the October 2007 edition of W&ET Magazine

Gotland: Treasure Capital Of The World

By: Ed Fedory


Young Men Find Viking Treasure Helping Neighbor with Gardening Chores!

School Children Locate Hoard of Viking Age Coins Beside Rabbit Hole!

Man Kicks Insignificant Lump of Earth and Reveals Ancient Treasure!

Such newspaper headlines are not infrequent if you happen to live in Gotland, Sweden's island province and the largest island in the Baltic Sea. Over 700 hoards of Viking Age coins and jewelry have been reported over the years to Swedish authorities, and it only makes me wonder how many treasure hoards have been found and gone unreported.

With so many treasures being recovered in the 1970s and early '80s, Swedish authorities were prompted to ban the use of metal detectors on the island of Gotland in 1985, and currently it is illegal to use metal detectors on any Swedish soil. I wonder if there is a Gotlandic market for trained silver-sniffing groundhogs?

Gotland holds the distinction of being the "Treasure Capital of the World" by the sheer volume of treasures recovered per square mile, and I'm sure the idea of farming has a newly acquired appeal to local residents.

Oddly enough, Gotland has neither silver nor gold as natural resources, and the hoards of treasure are a direct result of Viking contacts with the rest of Europe and the Middle East. Either through raiding or trading, vast amounts of precious metals, works of art, and precious stones made their way back to the island. Some of these treasures may have been acquired through political alliances and marriages. In fact, in the years surrounding the first millennium, England paid the Viking chiefs not to attack their lands. The payment was called the Danegeld, and during a ten-year period the amount of 150,000 lbs. of silver was handed over in one of history's biggest protection scams. When we look at the buying power of silver during the 11th century, we get a better perspective of just how much value was exchanging hands:

8 oz. silver = 1 oz. gold, or

4 milk cows

24 sheep

72 meters of homespun cloth/1 meter wide

The real phenomenon is not that such a vast number of hoards existed, but that so many were left unrecovered. The very idea of hoarding cuts to the depth of human psychology... it is a protective and secretive act meant to ensure future financial stability. The fact that most of these hoards were found inside the remains of dwellings also suggests a primitive form of banking.

Most of the Vikings were not the axe-bearing warriors frequently depicted in Hollywood epics... most were simple farmers. In early agrarian societies, needs were usually met through bartering, either for goods or services. When bartering could not "seal the deal," then a certain weight of precious metal could be negotiated. This would probably account for the numbers of cut coins, small ingots, and silver spirals found in many of the hoards. "Hack silver" refers to small pieces and chunks of silver that were hacked from a larger piece to make up a desired weight, and many hoards contain such small pieces of silver. Since precious metals were not a necessity to the normal running and functioning of the farm, it was buried until it was needed - and oft times, apparently, forgotten.

It has also been speculated that during times of turmoil, a family's wealth might be hidden, and if the town was pillaged those treasures would remain in the ground. Or perhaps an individual's wealth was hidden prior to a long and perilous voyage... a voyage from which he would never return. In either case, the result is the same: an unrecovered hoard of silver and gold!

In some cases, hoards from different periods of time have been found within yards of each other. During the period between 400 and 550 A.D., substantial amounts of Roman gold are found in the hoards along with Arabic silver dirhams. Of the total 689,000 coins recovered from this early period, 513,000 came from Gotland.

Hoards from the late Viking period show a shift in activity. The use of Arabic coins diminishes, while the number of Germanic and Anglo-Saxon coins increases. This shift is also displayed in where the hoards have been located. The majority of early Viking period hoards are found in the richest agricultural areas, while those of the later period seem to be confined to the coastal areas.

One exception to that generality is the recent recovery of what is believed to be the hoard of a wealthy Gotlandic merchant. In the year 2000, Swedish archaeologists unearthed a Viking hoard that was buried around the year 870. Included were 500 Viking silver bracelets, 13,000 Arabic dirhams, dozens of silver bars, numerous silver rings, and hundreds of pieces of hack silver. According to Professor Kenneth Jonsson of Stockholm University, it was, " extraordinary find. It demonstrates the fabulous wealth of at least some of the people on Gotland at this early period. We knew they were prosperous, but we are amazed at the scale of this hoard."

Viking hoards are not confined to either mainland Sweden or Gotland. They exist in every area occupied by the Vikings. Some of the largest Viking hoards have been found in Russia and England.

On May 15, 1840, workmen repairing an embankment on the south side of the River Ribble at Cuerdale, near Preston, Lancashire, found the remains of a lead chest containing 8,600 items of silver coins and bullion. The contents weighed close to 90 lbs. The laborers were each given one coin, and the major portion of the treasure was given to the British Museum.

Similarly, a lead box containing 464 silver coins, 25 ingots, and a silver armlet, was recovered by a detectorist on the Isle of Man in March 2003. The treasure was turned over to the authorities, evaluated by the Manx Museum, and a reward equal to the value of the treasure was awarded to the lucky finder.

While Vikings did reach North America and establish a small village on the northern tip of Newfoundland, their stay was of short duration, and nothing similar to the European hoards has been discovered during recent excavations.

I guess I can quickly dismiss any thoughts of walking along the Hudson River and discovering a mass of dirhams and silver ingots, although the local fields, so recently plowed, may yield an arrowhead or two. But I know that if I ever visit Gotland, I'll be kicking every insignificant lump of soil and checking out every rabbit and woodchuck hole I can find!

Treasure hunters?

Dreamers, all!

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