Spectacular Viking Treasure Casts Light on Europe’s Past

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Carolingian pot CT scan Dumfries 2014 Viking hoard. Image credit Borders General Hospital.

CT scan of a Carolingian pot, part of the Dumfries 2014 Viking hoard. Screenshot by Val Williamson, CT image by Borders General Hospital.

Scotland’s latest Viking discovery, the largest hoard of silver and gold found in the region for over a hundred years, has captured the public imagination.

A thousand years ago, a Viking buried his most precious treasure in a secret place to the north of the Solway Firth, now known as Dumfries, in Scotland. The area was on the beaten track of the Norse men who sailed around the British coast to their strongholds in the Isle of Man and Ireland.

The treasure may have included family heirlooms looted or bartered for on far away shores several generations earlier. What happened to prevent the owner of the hoard from returning to retrieve his precious belongings, we can only speculate.

Carolingian Find in CT Scan

An archaeology enthusiast who also runs a hospital CT scanner produced magnificent images of objects inside one of the finds. This was a 1200 year-old silver alloy pot-shaped lidded vessel buried under the main hoard.

Someone had wrapped the vessel in fabric before burial and the scan suggests that its contents had also been wrapped in organic matter, possibly leather, before being stored inside it.

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While substantial deposits of soil, verdigris and fabric remain fused to the pot and its contents, experts have identified it as Carolingian. The pot originated from the Frankish empire that united western Europe, extending from France across the Low Countries and Germany during the 8th and 9th centuries.

Exterior of Dumfries Carolingian pot compared with what the CT scan shows under the verdigris. Images from video by Historic Scotland/Borders General Hospital.

Exterior of Dumfries Carolingian pot compared with what the CT scan shows under the verdigris. Screenshots by Val Williamson of images by Historic Scotland & Borders General Hospital.

Historic objects identified by CT scan

The scanner showed there are about twenty items inside the container, many of them apparently brooches.

Early appraisal suggests that the identifiable objects are five silver brooches, several gold ingots and a number of ivory beads, some coated in gold.

The task of teasing out the twenty or so objects and conserving them will take considerable time, but may convey a great deal more about their history. It is good that so many seem whole rather than broken.

“Contemporary hoards in northern Europe often contain cut fragments of jewellery, known as ‘hacksilver’, which were cut up for use as bullion in payments or trade transactions,” according to the British Museum Report to HM Coroner on Treasure Case 2007 T2: The Vale of York Hoard.

Carolingian Cups or Pots

Only two other Carolingian lidded cups have been found in Britain, in Lancashire’s Cuerdale Hoard and Yorkshire’s Vale of York Hoard. Both were on view when I visited the 2014 British Museum Viking Life and Legend exhibition.

Experts believe Christian churches or monasteries used the pots or cups for liturgical purposes, then Vikings removed them in raids or received them as tribute in the mid-ninth century.

Both cups were buried packed with coins from a number of countries where the Norse men, also known as the Danes or Vikings, travelled and traded.

Since the craftsmen made those cups of metal alloy, containing only about 75% silver, and coated them on the inside with gilding, their owner may have relegated them to storage uses rather than being melted down.

The Dumfries Viking Hoard

The Carolingian container is part of a hoard found by metal detectorists at a secret location in Dumfries, Ayrshire, in September 2014. The vessel was part of a second hoard found buried under the main find, a collection of silver bracelets or arm bands and silver ingots which was itself two feet down in the soil.

Vikings did not have their own coinage but they valued silver and gold highly. They wore their savings in the form of silver arm bands that were a standard thickness and width. There were a large number of these among the Dumfries hoard, mostly straightened out or packed flat, as we might say today.

Also present was a solid gold ring, a gold pin shaped like a bird and a silver enamelled cross thought to originate from British monasteries.

 Analysing Viking Objects

Such precious finds are not analysed by invasive means, more often by scholarly research and comparison. In less than three months since the excavation of the treasure, experts already recognise different connections between artifacts.

The collection of artifacts in a Viking hoard tell us a great deal about the history of the Vikings. They had well-designed ships, well-equipped for survival, that enabled them to travel far afield along coasts and rivers.

The style or designs on objects suggest different locations of craftmanship. The silver armbands are Scandinavian; the Carolingian vessel is from Germany.

The cross and its design of the four apostles enamelled on the arms, suggest it is Irish or English, with connections to St. Cuthbert and religious establishments at Durham, Lindisfarne and Iona.

Lindisfarne and the Viking Age

Reverend Dr. David Bartholomew, a Church of Scotland minister who is one of the metal detectorists that found the hoard, said in a talk to a local congregation,

“This may be the earliest silver cross of its size found in Britain and may well have originated on Lindisfarne, or even Iona. Another artefact of great beauty is a four inch long gold pin topped by … a cormorant-like bird … it may have been a pointer stick used with the illuminated manuscripts on Lindisfarne.”

Vikings first attacked the island Lindisfarne monastery in 793; one of their earliest raids on England, considered the beginning of the Viking Age.

These pagan raiders found the unarmed monks around the coast of the British Isles an easy target, and their accumulated gold and silver artifacts very desirable as treasure.

Vikings and the Carolingian Empire

map Carolingian Empire c 800.

Carolingian Empire c830AD showing some Danish Viking routes by which they raided the coast and rivers of the Carolingian Empire. Screenshot by Val Williamson from Professor Kenneth W. Harl’s video lecture.

Carolingian goods made of precious metals were stolen or given as tribute (protection money) in Dane raids along the north coast and rivers of what are now known as France, northern Italy, Belgium, Holland, and Germany.

But what does Carolingian mean?

Charles the Great (known as Charlemagne) created the Carolingian Empire with the aid of the Catholic Pope during his reign, uniting Europe from the 780s until his death in 814.

The Empire then continued to exist rather shakily under rule of his sons, increasingly dealing with attacks by various bands of Danish Vikings.

Eventually tracts of land were offered to the Viking raiders in an attempt to pacify them.

One of these was a large part of northern France known as “Normandie,” which paved the way for the eventual conquest of Britain by the Duke of Normandy, William the Conqueror, in 1066.

Vikings in Scotland

German craftsmen produced a number of cups now conserved in various European museums; these cups are similar to the one recently found in the Dumfries hoard. It dates to the first half of the ninth century, possibly during Charlemagne’s reign, which throws light on the extent and longevity of the Viking’s network of trade.

Other items in the hoard date perhaps a century later, leaving us to wonder about the story of the person who hid the hoard and why. Clearly the entire Viking world was in turmoil much of the time.

It sometimes takes many months for the conservation process on archaeological finds to reveal all the secrets about the past that they hold. The brooches and beads and the Carolingian pot itself may yet tell us more about the people who owned them ten or twelve hundred years ago.

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  1. Maybe the churches hid these items so they wouldnt be given to the Vikings as tribute or stolen from the churches the Vikings might raid and steal items from