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!
Raiders, traders, and explorers, the Vikings traveled across Europe and as far east as Iraq. They were the first Europeans to set foot on the North American continent, 500 years before Columbus. (Photo courtesy of Viking Navy.)
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.
Vikings established trading centers and villages throughout Europe, and the sites of these former villages often yield hoards of silver coins and bullion. (Photo courtesy of wikipedia commons.)
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?
The dirham seems to have been the standard coin for Viking trading practices in the years preceding the first millennium. (Photo courtesy of geocities.com)
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.
The majority of coins found in early Viking hoards are Arab dirhams. Each full-sized coin weighs about three grams. (Photo courtesy of msnbc news.)
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:
While helping a neighbor with gardening chores in Gotland, Arvid and Edvin Sandborg found a hoard of over 1,400 Viking age coins. (Photo courtesy of msnbc news.)
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.
Silver bracelets from another hoard attest to the high quality of craftsmanship among Viking silversmiths. (Photo courtesy of www.visitstockholm Photo by Dan Carlsson.)
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.
These pieces represent only a small part of the fabulous Varby Hoard. Jewelry of exquisite design and craftsmanship is common in many large hoards from the Viking period. (Photo courtesy of www.greydragon.org)
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.
Gold brooches, ornaments, and coins are more common in the earliest Viking hoards. (Photo courtesy of www.greydragon.org)
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, "...an 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."
These Viking scales and weights were used to weigh precious metals during the process of conducting trade. (Photo courtesy of www.cne-siar.gov.uk.org)
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.
“Hack silver” was used to make up the required weight of precious metal to conclude a trade agreement and is a common part of many hoards. (Photo courtesy of www.cne-siar.uk.org)
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.