Saturday, 10 June 2017

Viking hack silver

Cut bar hack silver
Following my earier post on the Vikings I want to post a little about hack silver, a prevalent feature of Viking finds. Hack silver is, as the name suggests, cut up bits of silver objects, such as Islamic coins, jewellery etc, but also metal from these sources reformed into bars and strips or even droplets.
Globular hack silver
I had thought that this material was then remanufactured into other items like jewellery or new coin of Viking type but it appears that hack silver itself was used as a form of exchange into the early 11th century and I wonder whether it is any coincidence that the three pieces that I have conform approximately to the weight of a half penny (dirhem fragment, 0.5 grammes), penny (globule, 1 gramme) and three halfpence (cut bar, 1.6 grammes), albeit at a time when the weight of a penny fluctuated greatly, even within a single series.

Islamic Ayyubid dirhem cut, Viking hack silver
It has been postulated that there became a social divide in the use of hack silver as a means of exchange through time where once it had been used universally within Viking culture with the lower strata continuing to use it whilst the more elite began to become a more monetized society. With increasing monetization the range of weights of any particular series of coin became more fixed and the value for exchange was done less by weight and more by recognised value.

Islamic dirham of the Ayyubids, 192 AH
The use of hack silver as a method of exchange seems to have petered out during the 11th century and this has been linked to the debasement of the Islamic dirhems of the Fatimid dynasty.

Tuesday, 6 June 2017


Exhibition poster
It is thirty-seven years since I went to the great Viking exhibition at the British Museum (and again when it came on tour to the provinces and I saw it in York). At the time the display was hailed as groundbreaking as it presented the Vikings in a less war like manner. In those days the Viking settlement of Coppergate in York was still being excavated and the visitor experience was several years away from opening.

Viking exhibition catalogue, 1980
Now there is a new touring exhibition in York and I am eagerly anticipating my planned visit for Saturday. I went to the museum today to see if I could acquire a copy of the exhibition catalogue ahead of my visit but, unlike in 1980, there is no catalogue for this current show.

Coppergate wood & oyster shells from the Viking waste pits
There seems to be a resurgence in the study of history of Viking Britain and archaeology, and this, combined with the contemporary documentation, has located the winter camps of the micel here, or great army, as it swept through Britain; 871/2 London, 872/1 Torksey (Anglo Saxon Chronicle “Her nam se here wintersetle oet Turcesige”), 873/1 Repton, 874/5 by the Tyne. The last of the camps, the one of the winter of 875/6’ is thought to be on the outskirts of York, a site in the literature known as “Ainsbrook”, a portmanteau name made up from the names of the detectorists who initially located it, or also “Arsny” an acronym of a riverine site north of York.

Ainsbrook finds
The winter camps are not just military establishments entirely garrisoned by men; they are, apparently, functioning mixed gender settlements becoming a hive of economic activity if the preponderance of recovered weights is anything to go by. It would appear that the weights would have been used for, amongst other things, weighing the hack silver and gold, the cut up and sometimes remelted remains of precious metal that includes dirhems, silver coins from the Arab world.