Tag Archives: Jane Kershaw

Seminar CCXXIII: hackweights, cut coins and secret knowledge in Viking England

Sing hallelujah, for I have brought my seminar reporting backlog under a year again at last! Witness: the date of the seminar involved in this post is 13th January 2015, when my old colleague and Viking metal expert Jane Kershaw came to Birmingham to tell the Research Seminar of the Centre for the Study of the Middle Ages about “The Bullion Economy of Viking England”, and I was there.

Part of the Cuerdale Hoard, on display at South Ribble Museum

Part of the classic example of hack metal from the British Isles, the Cuerdale Hoard, on display at South Ribble Museum

The starting premise here is a duality long accepted by scholars of early medieval Scandinavia between monetary economies, where value can be measured, stored and exchanged in coin that is guaranteed to some extent by an outside agency like the state, and a bullion economy in which precious metal (or other metal) is dealt with by weight to perform the same functions. This is a concern of Scandinavianists because Viking Age Scandinavia operated on the latter terms whereas the places it was preying on usually had money, so whereas a ninth-century hoard in, say, the Paris basin would usually be coins, a ninth-century hoard in Sweden is classically many many Samanid dirhams, coins yes but often cut into non-arithmetic fragments, along with bits of jewellery, ingots and other lumps and bits of cut-up metal, or hacksilver as it’s usually called. Even the intact coins in such a hoard will very often bear peck marks from where their metal content was not taken on trust but tested with a knife-point or similar.

Reverse of a penny of King Æthelred II of England showing 'peck' marks in the upper right quarter

Reverse of a penny of King Æthelred II of England showing ‘peck’ marks in the upper right quarter. The coin is in the Fitzwilliam Museum, Cambridge

Now of course, sometimes you get ‘Viking’ hoards in ‘victim’ areas, and this is especially the case in the areas of England that were subject to Viking settlement. But these were money-using areas, so what happened when people who worked a different way moved in? This was the subject of Jane’s paper, because while hoards have told us mainly that settlers seem quickly to have adopted coin, to the point of making their own proper-standard stuff in the name of locally-culted saints, the single-finds that are continually being recovered by metal-detector users these days, the bits and pieces that people dropped or lost and which therefore presumably represent the everyday better than an emergency deposit like a hoard, tell a different story, because what they dropped and lost looks much more like the kind of cut-up bullion we expect from a non-monetary situation. In other words, people were doing both.

A cut fragment of a silver Permian ring from a Viking context and now in the Fitzwilliam Museum

A cut fragment of a silver Permian ring from a Viking context and now in the Fitzwilliam Museum; photograph by Jane Kershaw

To an extent, this shouldn’t surprise us, as several people opined in questions. When your smallest available monetary unit is a penny cut in half or quarter, quite a rare thing to find but still in the realm of, say, five or ten pounds sterling as of 2015—total fudge figures because we can buy so much more and get money so much more easily, but an approximation for thinking with—some smaller ways of handling value must have been desirable, for the basic everyday level of exchange that we mostly can’t see but assume was usually done with produce. But Jane gave us two other important things to consider.

Viking silver ingot

A smooth, ‘regular’ ingot with rounded ends and test marks (PAS ‘Find-ID’ SF-144CA2, photo: PAS), says Jane on her blog

Firstly, many of the lumps of metal we find are much bigger than this, including ingots of around 50 grams, with a buying power on the same scale of more like three to five hundred pounds. So the bullion economy could supplement the top end of the monetary one as well as the bottom one, and perhaps better since really tiny pieces of silver and gold such as might make for low denomination currency would be awfully easy to lose!

Viking copper alloy collapsible weights from 1000-1200

Viking copper alloy collapsible weights from 1000-1200. Photograph by Klaus Göken/Museum für Vor- und Frühgeschichte/Berlin State Museums.

Secondly, operating in a bullion economy requires learned skills that a monetary one displaces: you as trader, on whatever scale, need to be able to weigh, test, evaluate and value all kinds of metal object or fragment to be sure that you are receiving what you think fair and paying no more than you have to. Coin which you can trust gets rid of those problems and leaves you only haggling over a fair price, without needing to work out how to express that, demand it or ensure that you’ve really received it. Small wonder that many graves of people from this period with strong Scandinavian connections include small sets of weights and balances!

An assemblage of Viking metalwork finds from Torksey, Lincolnshire, in the Fitzwilliam Museum, Cambridge

A carefully-sorted assemblage of finds from Torksey, Lincolnshire, in the Fitzwilliam Museum, Cambridge. Obviously they didn’t come in looking as tidy as this!

This all sounds somewhat chaotic, and assemblages like the above, pulled together from twenty-five years of metal detecting over the area of a short-lived Viking fortified harbour, tend to corroborate that impression: how could anyone manage all this stuff? Well, among all the stuff above that seemed clear and sensible and somewhat like someone pointing out the floor under a carpet I had got very used to walking on, Jane also had some hints of a system being used to manage the chaos, by possibly setting weight standards in some metals. The hints here are cubo-octohedral weights, square lumps with the corners cut off, which are found in various sizes from just above a gram to just below four, and are numbered with spots, like dice with only one face. They are found numbered all the way from one to six, and their weights are roughly in proportion to those numbers but so far no example has been found with five spots.

A Viking cuboctohedral weight with four dots on it

A number four weight of the type Jane was discussing, photographed by her and discussed on her blog (click through)

It’s hard not to see a system there, and Allan McKinley bravely suggested that a dirham might be about the right weight to be the five-spot unit, though I checked this later and dirhams seem usually to have been too heavy. But the problem is variation and regulation: the weights aren’t exactly consistent, and how could they be? What reference could there have been except someone else’s weights? That need not preclude an aim to be consistent, but it makes it impossible for us to verify: the error margins of the weights of something so small could very easily exceed a step in the scheme. If a high-weight two-spot one weighs more than someone else’s light three-spot one, we have to ask not only how could this work but how can we be sure they really should be the other way round? I’m not saying Jane’s not right about this, but early medieval metrology is notoriously unverifiable except by constructing models that then guide your sense of what the objects ‘should’ weigh, and given that, I’m not sure what she will have to do to convince me we can really know that one of the models is sustainable…


Jane’s cite for the bullion economy system was Dagfinn Skre (ed.), Means of exchange dealing with silver in the Viking Age, Norske Oldfunn 23 (Århus 2008), and it’s a good one, though I feel that we have to mention Mark Blackburn, Viking Coinage and Currency in the British Isles, British Numismatic Society Special Publication 7 (London 2011) too; for more local examples, see now Jane Kershaw, “Viking-Age Silver in North-West England: hoards and single finds” in Stephen E. Harding, David Griffiths & Elizabeth Royles (edd.), In Search of Vikings: Interdisciplinary Approaches to the Scandinavian Heritage of North-West England (Florence KY 2014), pp. 149-164.

Seminar LXXXV: Viking metal for women

I realise this title may be misleading but I can’t resist it… I have been reminded that I promised to write up Jane Kershaw‘s paper given to the Institute of Historical Research Earlier Middle Ages seminar on 9th February, and that time has come. I was reminded by Magistra’s own write-up of it, in which she says:

Jon Jarrett has promised to blog this paper as well, so if you want details from someone who knows rather more about both archaeology and Anglo-Saxon history than me (not difficult), you should probably wait for his take, because he can give a more considered view as to whether Jane’s argument actually holds up.

Aha, so you think, but quite apart from anything else I work with Jane, see her most lunchtimes in term, and need her to give a lecture for me on a course next year. The chance of my saying anything that might sound negative is thus pretty low, even if I had such a thing to say, and actually this is becoming more and more of an issue the more embedded I get in academia. I can still aim to be informative, though, and if you find yourself needing to know more Jane has a paper out that covers some of this stuff and you can read it yourself.1 So, OK, the reason for the title is that Jane’s paper, whose title was: “New Insights on the Viking Settlement of England: the small finds evidence”, was about brooches, and specifically metal brooches such as we now have far more of than we used to have because of metal-detecting.2 (Jane estimated that the corpus of Viking-period metal artefacts has multiplied by a factor of 22 or 23 since the last round of major catalogues was published, so we have a lot to synthesize.)

Fragment of a ninth-century Scandinavian oval brooch found at Wormegay

Fragment of a ninth-century Scandinavian oval brooch found at Wormegay, image provided very kindly by Dr Kershaw to replace the less relevant one this post originally had here

The brooches that she was talking about were found in England, between the second half of the ninth century and the second half of the tenth, but were in a Scandinavian style. They are therefore Viking cultural indicators, showing not just Viking jewellery æsthetics but Viking dress styles, as the oval brooches especially only make sense worn on a dress with straps which was not the Anglo-Saxon fashion before the Vikings came. Once they’d come, however, we can’t really tell whether what we have is Danish women who’d been brought over getting stuff made in the style they’d grown up with, or English women dressing like Danes. We can be fairly sure that the brooches were not being traded, though, or at least, not made for export in Scandinavia, because the range of styles found is basically the same as that in Scandinavia, so our notional brooch-seller would have to be working very hard to scoop up a representative sample from all round Denmark… The finds don’t cluster round ports of entry, either, and their distribution is mostly rural, so what we obviously don’t have is someone with a stall in York—in fact, York has thrown up almost none of these pieces, despite being quite heavily dug—getting brooches shipped in by the crate from his contact back in Aarhus, it’s more genuinely popular and incidental than that.

Eleventh-century bronze Viking trefoil brooch

Eleventh-century bronze Viking trefoil brooch, PAS ID NMS-56E967

On the other hand, they don’t really spread outside the Danelaw, and there are some odd patches of non-appearance within it. Distribution is an imprecise measurement, admittedly, but 500+ brooches is a lot, and as Jane wisely said when queried about arguing from silence, even if for some inexplicable reason (I had assumed detector bias, since lots of her sample was coming from Norfolk and Suffolk, much better territory for detectors than anywhere too hilly, but she was ready with a map that compared the brooches to all finds of detected goods and their distribution wasn’t typical) the finds are under-represented in one area, we still have all the others to explain.3 There can be fewer of something found in an area than we suspect there ought to be; but there can hardly be more of something than there should be! This is one of those obvious points that hit me hard in the brain as something I’d never before thought and marks Jane out as an unusually clear archæological thinker (and I’m not just saying that, honest).

Tenth-century cast copper-alloy Borre-style brooch

Tenth-century cast copper-alloy Borre-style brooch, PAS ID NMS-9704F0

So that’s one thing that needs careful explanation, and then we start to find imitations, locally-manufactured versions, which are distinguishable by fastening a different way, the way of the Anglo-Saxon disc brooches that had been usual before these Scandy items joined them on the shoulders of the Danelaw’s women. (This is important: the Anglo-Saxon ones continue to be found too. It’s not a replacement, it’s an addition to a cultural complex.) Whether this marks immigrant women dressing English-style or Anglo-Saxon women wanting to update their brooches to the nouvelle vague is not clear but whatever it is, it’s not clean assimilation; people wearing such items were expressing a new hybrid kind of dress style. Jane was scrupulous about not making easy leaps from clothing to identity, but at the very least, in these communities it’s not necessary to look traditionally English, if there were ever such a thing anyway. And then finally there are new Anglo-Saxon brooches made on a proto-industrial scale in the tenth century, indicating still another change, and it would be lovely to somehow connect this with the English reconquest (campaign buttons?) but somehow I think with this many real women involved it isn’t going to submit to a simple answer, and the fact of the matter is the distribution of these sorts of brooch actually spreads after the reconquest, not shrinks.

Ninth-century Saxon disc brooch with backwards beast decoration

Ninth-century Saxon disc brooch with backwards beast decoration, PAS ID NMS-463627. I can't get more than four Anglo-Scandinavian brooches out of the PAS database and they all look really scummy, so I haven't used one of those.

So, are these items actually telling us about identities, or does it just tell us, as Susan Reynolds suggested, that the gentry of a certain area know a little man in Norwich who makes these darling things you just have to have, and so on in several other places?4 As Jane finished by pointing out, there are other regional mappings we can make that seem to show a similar story of regional distinctiveness. The province that’s thickest with these brooches is not simply East Anglia, but Norfolk and North Suffolk, as distinct from South Suffolk where, glorious detector land though it be, they don’t show up half as much. Now, this also fits, more or less roughly, said Jane, the distribution of common fields versus unified estates in the area in Domesday Book, the distribution of minor place-names (fields, boundaries and so on) and those major ones in -by and -thorp, classic Old Norse indicators. At that rate, it begins too look as if we’re talking about a cultural zone where being, you know, a bit Danish innit, was pretty much OK.

Silver Saint Edmund penny, c. 905-18, found by metal detector at Great Barton, Norfolk

Silver Saint Edmund penny, c. 905-18, found by metal detector at Great Barton, Norfolk, PAS ID SF-DC3EA7

It also matches coinage zones, said Jane: inside the ‘Viking’ zone, the regular Anglo-Saxon coinage hardly runs, the favourite one instead being the enigmatic St Edmund pennies that anyone studying this are has to get their head round: coins minted by a Viking-identified government established by pagan warriors commemorating a Christian royal opponent they’d killed. It’s quite like how rapidly ‘Viking’ York starts minting coins with Christian symbols on, and indeed these are imitated at Lincoln and circulate in this zone too.5 In South Suffolk, by contrast, the stuff doesn’t get out and the royal coinage is found. Now, this is something you can check yourself, because some years ago a clever chap called Sean Miller whom I’ve mentioned here before put means for you to do so on the web, and I have to admit, when I do this with the St Edmund and St Peter coinages and then with the coins of Edward the Elder respectively from Norfolk and Suffolk, I get a distribution that is (a) too thin to be very revealing and (b) more or less the same for Viking and non-Viking types in the counties. So I don’t know if the money side of the comparison really holds up, and as to the rest of these zonal indicators I am mindful of a wise thing that I once heard said of all arguments made from distribution of objects or sites, that they should also be mapped against the locations of telephone boxes and see if that correlates as well. And we know that bad things can be done with this technique. All the same, I’m not convinced that this was one of them; we do have the brooches to explain, the trend has to come from somewhere, and a kind of proud-to-be-a-different-kind-of-English-with-friends-across-the-North-Sea cultural self-awareness fostered by a persistent local-level government established by a Viking territorial settlement and allowed to remain in place helps explain them and their distribution whereas not much else does. I don’t think we can stop looking for other possibilities just yet, but then I don’t suppose Jane was going to stop any time soon either…


1. Jane E. Kershaw, “Culture and Gender in the Danelaw: Scandinavian and Anglo-Scandinavian Brooches” in Viking and Medieval Scandinavia Vol. 5 (Turnhout 2009), pp. 295–325, doi:10.1484/J.VMS.1.100682.

2. Oh, I’m sorry, you were actually interested in Viking metal? In that case may I suggest Simon Trafford & Alex Plukowski, “Antichrist superstars: the Vikings in hard rock and heavy metal” in D. W. Marshall (ed.), Mass Market Medieval: essays on the Middle Ages in popular culture (Jefferson 2007), pp. 57-73, and if you do get it, and happen to have a PDF somehow, I wouldn’t object if it somehow wound up in my INBOX as Oxford don’t have a copy and I’m not sure I have the force of character to recommend it to any of the relevant libraries.

3. My stock reference for things you can get wrong with archæological distribution mapping is now available to you too, it being Mary Chester-Kadwell, Early Anglo-Saxon Communities in the Landscape of Norfolk: Cemeteries and Metal-Detector Finds in Context, British Archaeological Reports (British Series) 481 (Oxford 2009).

4. On Viking identities in the Danelaw more widely, as if you like the wave on which this work by Jane is one of the breakers, you could try either or both of Dawn Hadley & Julian Richards (edd.), Cultures in Contact: Scandinavian Settlement in England in the Ninth and Tenth Centuries (Turnhout 2000) or James Graham-Campbell, Richard Hall, Judith Jesch & David Parsons (edd.), Vikings and the Danelaw: Select Papers from the Proceedings of the Thirteenth Viking Congress (2001), or if you prefer a single synthetic view Dawn Hadley’s The Vikings in England: Settlement, society and culture (Manchester 2006).

5. For more on these coinages see Mark Blackburn, “Currency under the Vikings. Part 2. The Two Scandinavian Kingdoms of the Danelaw, c. 895-954″, Presidential Address 2005 in British Numismatic Journal 76 (London 2006), pp. 204-226, soon to be reprinted in the first volume of his collected papers.