Archaeologists piece together the past like a detective puts together the clues left behind at a crime scene. Much of what has been learned about the Vikings have been pieced together by studying items the Vikings lost or accidentally left behind across much of Europe. One source of artifacts is their hoards.
What is a Hoard?
Some Vikings became very wealthy men as a result of their trading, raiding and pillaging. That wealth often included jewels, gemstones, jewelry, gold and silver coins and precious religious artifacts. Since there were no banks in medieval times, these treasures were often buried in shallow pits dug beneath the floorboards of a Viking home or outside near a tree or outhouse. These stashes were called hoards.
A Display of Wealth
The Vikings often displayed their prosperity. Both men and women wore jewelry- finger, arm rings, brooches and pendants. They also wore bangles and bracelets and a brangle-like neck ring called a torc. Some Vikings displayed both their wealth and generosity by giving away some of their treasures. This was a means of creating a group of loyal followers especially when protection from enemies was needed. The hoards often served as a source for these handouts.
A Pagan Ritual
Historians and archaeologists believe these hoards may have been part of a pagan religiousritual. Pre-Christian Vikings believed in an afterlife and buried the dead with most of their personal belongings. This provided everything the dead person needed to live comfortably in the next world. If a Viking had a hoard, it was probably left untouched. In his afterlife, he could return to the it and remove the treasures as needed. Even Viking women were buried with household items so that in her next life she could continue her household responsibilities. This burial practice ended when the Vikings became Christians.
Hoards Lost, Forgotten and Found Again
The locations of the hoards were eventually forgotten or their owners failed to return from battle to claim the treasures or they were forced to flee an enemy and leave their treasures behind. The hoards contents, therefore, remained buried and undiscovered for centuries. Over the past hundred years or so, some of these hoards have been rediscovered. Most of them have been found accidentally, some by farmers ploughing their fields and others by contractors building homes and constructing roads. One was discovered by a boy who chased a rabbit to the entrance of its den where he found several silver coins tossed out by the animal. For the archaeologists and historians, such discoveries have become a bonanza of clues about life in Viking times.
One of the most valuable items found in hoards are coins. The largest hoard ever uncovered contained 7000 coins. Just as today, coins minted in Viking times contained images, some of powerful kings and others of objects valued by the Vikings, such as the Viking ship pictured here. Some of the coins even show the growing influence of Christianity as encircled crosses began to appear one their faces.
Some coins discovered in the hoards were not Viking at all. They were minted in other lands visited or raided by the Vikings. One such coin came from an Arabian city located some 4500 kilometres from the Danish farmer's field in which it was stashed.
One easy source of coins for the Vikings was "payment for peace". It was a common practice for the kings of Europe to pay the Vikings not to invade and loot their kingdoms. These coins were called Danegald meaning "Danes gold", a reference to the fact that the Danish Vikings were paid in gold to keep the peace.
Many of the hoards discovered contain hack-silver; small pieces of silver hacked (cut) from coins and jewelry. Hack silver was used as payment for merchandise. The Vikings often weighed the silver for payment so when a little more silver was needed to complete the deal, it was simply hacked from something else made of silver- a coin or a piece of jewelry. This suggests the silver was more valuable than the value of the coin or jewelry itself.
Some hoards also contained silver ingots- large bars of silver formed by melting looted silver coins and jewelry. These bars could be used to create new coins, weighed as payment for some goods or fashioned into Viking jewelry.