Humble Iron Age Grave Yields Big Honking Hoard

i-b8b78d13a4623024231e36e8001168b8-silverskatt3_170.jpgViking Period Scandinavians had a funny custom where they would bury silver hoards and not dig them out again. On Gotland, the hoards are so common that the local paper has been known to note tersely that "this year's hoard has been found". But not all Swedish provinces are similarly endowed. My native area around Lake Mälaren has far fewer hoards.

Most silver hoards are found by farmers when they till their fields. Once in a very long while, archaeologists get lucky and find a hoard in situ. Of course, they tend to find the commonest kind of hoard, i.e., pretty small ones. This happened at one of the Helgö cemeteries in the 1970s. But just recently, my colleagues at the National Heritage Board's excavation unit got really, really lucky and found a big whopping hoard of about 450 coins on their dig. It's the early type of Viking Period hoard, dominated by Caliphate issues including such from Baghdad and Damascus, with the latest coin struck about AD 850.

The dig was expected to be a humdrum affair, concerning a late-Last Millennium BC grave in which you might hope to find a little burnt bone and some iron fragments -- if very lucky. As it turned out, local wealthies had messed around with the site a thousand years after the original funeral and stuck a silver hoard into the monument.

The site was dug in advance of development for housing and is located in Uppland, not far from Arlanda international airport. Those ancient people are everywhere!

Thanks to LL and Tegumai for the heads-up.

Update 7 April: Several good pix here.


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It's not surprising in the least. There were no banks. So how to keep safe one's nest egg? Hide it, of course. And one didn't dare show anyone where that was, except one's spouse. Or some other relative whom one trusted dearly. But only one other. Then death sneaks up, and before the hoard is hid again or its location passed on, death sneaks up again. And then it truly is a secret for the ages, until chance eyes and hands uncover it.

Keeping a secret relies on not letting too many know. But maintaining it as knowledge down the years requires that the living set of those who know never drops to zero. 'Tis a narrow path between those two bounds. Still is, in some ways. But now the banks or the state are beneficiary of abandoned funds.

Most Scandy archaeologists believe that it isn't as simple as that. For one thing, on Gotland a lot of the hoards are under the living-room floor. Everybody must have known about this widespread consistent behaviour. And still, when houses were abandoned or demolished, people weren't taking the time to search for the hoards that they could expect to find there. There appears to have been a cultural agreement to leave them in place.

As for the new hoard from Uppland, it was buried in an ancient monument. If that isn't suspiciously irrational, then I don't know what is.


I wonder how homogenous the hoards are in terms of origin of coin - do you see a mix of, say Celtic and Arab silver?

Would the source have been the slave trade from Russia?

I wonder what the most Eastern artifacts (anything from China or India?) that have been found.

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BWV, the early hoards from 800 to 970 are usually all Caliphate silver. Then come the late ones, which are dominated by English and German coins.

The source of the early hoards must indeed be Eastern Europe, and slave trade is one of several possible sources (including raiding).

The easternmost finds from Sweden that I'm aware of is an Indian Buddha figurine and a Chinese coin.

(The Celtic coinage dried up with the Roman conquest of Gaul and Britain around AD 1.)

These coins all appear to be dirhams. The ones with only writing are Arabic (Ummayad, so far as I can tell) but the ones with monarch's heads are Sassanid. Islam forbids depicting people, the Sassanids were Zoroastrians. I am not an expert but the Sassanid coins appear to be 7th C. and perhaps earlier, but the Arabic coins are later, some into the 9th C. So, maybe a hoard is hoarded and kept for years and years(?).

Numismatists call that the hoard's "tail". Depending on what kind of coins were in circulation and how long a hoard was actively being built up, the tail can span centuries.

On Gotland, the tail on Viking Period hoards sometimes reaches with a coin or two all the way back into Early Imperial Roman times. This has been interpreted as evidence for Viking Period settlement expansion and land clearance: farmers were probably finding denarius hoards (deposited only in the 4th century) and incorporating the coins into their hoards.