Viking-Age silver trove unearthed by metal detectorist in Norway

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A silver treasure trove dating back to the Viking Age has been unearthed in central Norway. The hoard, which was buried mere inches from the surface, was found by metal detectorist Pawel Bednarski from the Kongshaug plateau in Stjørdal back in December last year. Based on the age of Arab coins found in the trove, experts believe that the artefacts stem from around AD 900.

Calling the find “fantastic”, Mr Bednarksi said: “I’ve never made a discovery like this — it’s something you only get to experience once.

“The first item I found was a small ring that didn’t look particularly interesting at first glance. Then another ring appeared — and then a piece of bangle.

“The objects were covered in clay, so it wasn’t easy to see what they looked like.

“It was only when I got home and rinsed off one of the bangle pieces that I realised this was an exciting find.”

Ultimately, the metal detectorist found that he had unearthed a veritable treasure trove of 46 small silver artefacts, mostly fragments — but including two simple, complete finger rings.

The haul was analysed by archaeologist Professor Birgit Maixner of the Norwegian University of Science and Technology’s University Museum.

She said: “This is quite an exceptional find. Finding this big a treasure from the Viking Age hasn’t happened in Norway for a long time.”

The majority of the treasures — which included a braided necklace as well as bracelets and chains — had been cut into small pieces to produce so-called hacksilver.

Prof. Maixner explained: “This find is from a time when silver pieces were weighed and used as a means of payment.

“This system is called the weight economy and was in use in the transitional period between the earlier barter economy and subsequent coin economy.”

Elsewhere in Europe, coins began to enter circulation as early as the so-called Merovingian period (around AD 550–800).

In Norway, however, they only began to be minted late in the 9th century, towards the end of the Viking Age. Before this point, barter economies were common in the Nordic countries, with the weight economy making inroads around the end of the 8th century.

According to Prof. Maixner, “the weight economy was a much more flexible system than the barter economy.”

In the latter, for example, she explained, ”you had to have a fair number of sheep if you wanted to exchange them for a cow.

“Weighed silver, on the other hand, was easy to handle and transport, and you could buy the goods you wanted when it worked for you.”

The total weight of the silver hoard unearthed by Mr Bednarksi weighed a total of 42 grams. According to Prof. Maixner, we have a rough idea of how much purchasing power that had.

She said: “Of course, we can’t say anything for sure, but the Gulating law gives us some clues about the price of a cow.”

(The Gulating was one of the first Norwegian legislative assemblies, taking place in Gulen, on the country’s western coast, each year from around AD 900–1300.)

Prof. Maixner continued: “A bit of figuring based on that law suggests that this treasure trove was worth about six-tenths of a cow.

“That treasure amount was worth quite a lot in its time, especially for one individual — and also when you realise it wasn’t that long ago that medium-sized farms with five cows became common.”

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It is unclear exactly why the silver hoard was originally buried by its owner.

Prof. Maixner said: “We don’t know if the owner hid the silver for safekeeping — and then was prevented from retrieving it — or if it was buried as a sacrifice or a gift to some god.”

The fact that many of the pieces of hacksilver in the hoard weigh less than one gram suggests that they were used as a means of payment repeatedly — and perhaps their owner was involved in trade.

Further hints about the origin of the hacksilver hoard comes from how it contains multiple fragments of various objects — including, for example, an almost-complete 9th century-style Danish armband split into eight pieces.

In contrast, most Scandinavian troves typically only include one fragment of each original object sacrificed to make hacksilver.

Prof. Maixner said: “We can see that the owner prepared himself for trading by dividing the silver into appropriate weight units.

“The person in question had access to complete broadband bracelets — a primary Danish object type — which could indicate that the owner was in Denmark before travelling up to the Stjørdal area.”

At this time, the Kongshaug plateau had a strategic location at the entrance to the Stjørdal region, which in itself was an important trade route between east and west.

Prof. Maixner added: “Perhaps the owner of the silver treasure found the trading post unsafe and hid his valuables in the entrance area to the plain, on the Kongshaug plateau, until Pawel Bednarski found it ploughed up in a furrow around 1,110 years later.”

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