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13.09.23, Graham-Campbell, The Cuerdale Hoard

13.09.23, Graham-Campbell, The Cuerdale Hoard

The Cuerdale hoard of silver coins, ingots, rings, brooches, and other ornaments--many cut up for hack silver--is the single largest cache of Viking treasure ever found outside Russia. It was discovered in the south bank of the river Ribble in Lancashire in 1840 and dispersed among the workmen who found it, plus many other recipients, including Queen Victoria, according to the law of Treasure Trove then in effect. It has since been reassembled and catalogued for the first time in 170 years, forming the heart of the British Museum's collection of gold and silver artifacts of "Viking character" (1) recovered from other hoards and single deposits in Ireland and the British Isles up to the year 2000. The Cuerdale treasure itself was secreted in a lead box in the early tenth century, probably in 905 or soon thereafter based upon the date of its most recently minted coins. It is estimated to have weighed 42.6 kilograms or almost 94 pounds in its original deposition of which 27.28 kilos or over 60 pounds--almost two-thirds--have been recovered. The hoard contains material from many different periods and a wide range of sources, including much older pieces from Scandinavia proper; ninth-century Anglo-Saxon mintings; Irish and Hiberno-Norse ingots, some marked with a cross; continental coins and Arab dirhems, including one exotic imitation of a piece from the kingdom of the northern Bulghars, such as may have been known to the Norse traders described there by Ahmed ibn Fadlân whose Rusiyyâh provides the first eye-witness account of a Viking ship-funeral on the Volga in 922.

Despite this broad geographical provenance, however, the latest and largest amount of coinage in the hoard comes from closer to home, the Scandinavian parts of northern and eastern England--the old Danelaw--whose main center was at Jorvík or York. The 7500 coins of the hoard are described and categorized in an essay by Gareth Williams and Marion Archibald, providing the most specific evidence for the date and origin of its contents. Susan Kruse covers the more than 350 ingots and Hero Granger-Taylor the impressions made by textiles upon them, suggesting they had been divided into separate money bags fastened with the bone pins recovered from the site. John Sheehan describes the various rings and ring-fragments, Graham-Campbell the brooches, pins, buckles, pendants, beads, chains, wires, and filigree fragments, with a contribution by Barry Ager on the gold discs from a separate find at Halton Moor, Lancashire, in 1815. Egon Wamers discusses the Halton Moor cup and Carolingian metalwork in the Cuerdale hoard, mainly filigree fragments and belt-fittings. All of these discussions are overseen or co-written by Graham-Campbell himself who goes on to discuss the techniques of manufacturing and decorating the 1153 silver objects catalogued, including casting, hammering, stamping, brambling, incising, and wire-drawing. He also considers briefly the possible historical context for the gathering and secreting of such wealth before providing hand lists of other coin hoards in Britain and Ireland from the "Viking Age"--the late eighth through eleventh centuries--that were also accompanied by non-numismatic treasure: gold rings, gold and silver Thor's hammer pendants, and other gold and silver ornaments. Mixed hoards with such a high percentage of finely crafted artifacts fragmented for their value as bullion, as well as coins both foreign and domestic, suggest a movement in these new insular Norse territories from an older gift or "display" economy to one based upon the exchange of weighed precious metal or bullion, including essentially "demonetized" foreign coins often showing signs of testing for quality, to one based upon officially minted specie, though the precise extent to which the Viking kings of York attempted to control the circulation of minted currency in the regions under their rule is still unknown. The bullion and ornamental pieces are described in separate catalogue entries illustrated with black and white photos by Nigel Meeks and/or figures drawn by Karen Hughes to reveal details not easily seen in the photos.

The catalogue itself is divided into two main parts: (1) Viking-Age hoards, either mixed or coinless, beginning with Cuerdale, but covering fifteen others as well; and (2) twenty-five individual finds of Viking-Age gold and silver ingots, rings, brooches, and pendants, followed by five appendices on problematic pieces in the British Museum's collection or other types of information relevant to reconstructing or interpreting the original contents of the Cuerdale hoard: (1) a Thor's hammer pendant, "reputedly" from "near Carlisle," which is judged a "fake" (268); (2) a number of pieces wrongly attributed to the Cuerdale hoard, either fakes or mistakes, including an unprovenanced Merovingian silver penannular arm-ring discussed by Martin Welch; (3) the Duchy of Lancaster's nineteenth-century distribution-lists of the Cuerdale pieces and their current location, if known; (4) a summary list of the Cuerdale hoard coins currently in the British Museum; and (5) a list of related coins in the Goldsborough hoard, North Yorkshire, found in 1859. The preliminary essays mention and illustrate, but the catalogue does not include, the Vale of York hoard discovered by metal-detectorists in North Yorkshire in 2007, which is the next largest Viking treasure from the period after Cuerdale and comparable in its complexity. It has been dated to 927-928 and contains 617 coins of similarly mixed provenance--Danelaw, Anglo-Saxon, Arab, and Carolingian--plus 67 pieces of silver (ingots, arm-rings, brooches, and hack silver), one gold arm-ring, and a gilt-silver Carolingian vessel, possibly a chalice, closely resembling the Halton Moor cup, which Egon Wamers concludes came from the same continental workshop, possibly that of St-Germain-de-Prés crafted sometime in the prior century between 820-850. The volume concludes with a very substantial bibliography; 83 black and white plates; and an index, mainly of objects, the places where they were found, and manufacturing techniques.

In addition to enjoying quiet scrutiny of these artifacts in such a friendly and precisely informative format, the non-specialist reader will want to know what Graham-Campbell and his team make of the significance of the hoard for a deeper understanding of the remarkable Viking diaspora into the North Atlantic islands during the ninth and tenth centuries, what it can tell us about the nature of their contact with the various groups living there--hostile, friendly, and commercial--and what changes were wrought upon the societies of natives and newcomers in the process of creating new ones. For this information, some readers may be disappointed. As appropriate to a museum catalogue, this collective effort is heavy on detailed description and light on analysis. Graham-Campbell deliberately avoids personal speculation as to the precise circumstances of the hoard's burial, intending "to make available the essential data in sufficient detail as to allow all those interested in the study of this material to be able to utilize it for their own research purposes--and thus to arrive at new interpretations and conclusions for the general advancement of Viking studies" (156). This modest and discreet goal is mercifully honored in the breach, however, since Graham-Campbell is quite willing to cite (with apparent approval) the informed impressions of others, including one of his co-authors, the numismatist Gareth Williams, so that readers do have a little more help after all in grasping the importance of the hoard and the unanswered questions surrounding it.

The Ribble estuary provided access by water between the Scandinavian trading emporium at Dublin west across the Irish Sea and the primary land route east across the Pennines to the Viking kings at York with whom the Dublin Norse were closely associated. The hoard was found above the point of navigation, only a mile or two east of where the old Roman north-south road crossed the Ribble and on the direct route overland to York. Yet the Dublin Norse had been driven out of Ireland in 902, only a few years before the treasure was deposited, so that it may have been secreted by Scandinavian exiles from that country, perhaps in the fruitless hope of using it to help finance a return expedition. A stash of such magnitude seems hardly to suggest an "accidental loss" (151), as with so many of the single finds. In addition, the deposit lacks any obvious religious or ritual aspects, which would have suggested that it was an offering to the gods or an effort to secure a wealthy afterlife for the depositor according to "Odin's (so-called) law" (151), as later described by Snorri Sturluson in his thirteenth-century Ynglinga Saga (Chapter 8). Snorri claims that Odin "ordered that all the dead were to be burned on a pyre together with their possessions, saying that everyone would arrive in Valhöll with such wealth as he had with him on his pyre and that he would also enjoy the use of what he himself had hidden in the ground" (trans. Hollander 1964), a belief complex confirmed by ibn Fadlân in his interview with one of the Rus. But in this case, it is likely that the treasure was simply deposited for safe keeping in the "bank," either as a temporary expedient in emergency circumstances or more deliberately for later withdrawal when needed at some point in the future. In the event, the hoard was never recovered, suggesting that its owner had passed on before communicating its whereabouts to heirs. Two scenes from the thirteenth-century Icelandic Egil's Saga come to mind in this context. In one, the Norwegian refugee Skallagrim Kveldulfsson secretly buries his personal treasure, kept in a good-sized chest and an iron cauldron, to spite his son Egil for not sharing with him the two chests of silver paid to the family by King Æthelstan of England for the loss of his other son Thorolf at the Battle of Vin Moor or Brunanburh, as it is known in English, somewhere in the northwest of England in 937. In a parallel episode, Egil himself, blind and ailing, hides this "English silver," later revealed to contain many coins, to keep it from his own unloved son and other relatives, but only after fantasizing about pouring it all out at the Law Rock of the Althing in order to enjoy the ensuing chaos. The Viking diaspora strained and disrupted many former relationships and identities based upon family, creed and country. It bred an unusually individualistic culture, stressing personal achievement and the accumulation of riches both for this life and for that to come. Egil's Saga at least demonstrates that the human motivations for secreting moveable wealth, including its permanent alienation in the earth, could be complex and over-determined by a number of competing impulses, religious ideas, and chance occurrences.

In his concluding discussion of "Contents and Contexts," Graham-Campbell lets stand two imperfectly reconciled possibilities. On the one hand, he combines suggestions by Nick Higham (1992) and F. Edmonds (2009) to note that the river Ribble:

opens up into a broad estuary, which...could have served well as a base for a Viking fleet in exile...The deposition of the Cuerdale hoard in north-west England, within the period 905-10, places it during the 'interregnum' experienced by the Viking elite of Dublin and Waterford, who...only succeeded in re-establishing power in Dublin in 917. The River Ribble marks the southern boundary of Amounderness (Fig. 9.3), a district named after a Norse individual named Agmund [= Old Icelandic Ogmundr]...It may be that Agmund was one of the Dublin exiles, which would certainly help to explain the suggested presence of a Viking fleet, not to mention the Cuerdale hoard itself, in this estuary/valley (155).

On the other hand, Graham-Campbell follows this suggestion by repeating at length the judgment of Gareth Williams in his earlier essay on coins that the hoard was brought to Cuerdale not by exiles fleeing Ireland, but rather compiled for unknown reasons at York:

The fact that freshly-struck coins minted in York form the most recent addition to the hoard suggests that that element of the hoard at least was on its way from York at the time that the hoard was deposited. If one accepts that minting at York does not mean that there was any control of monetary circulation, there is no reason to suppose that any of the other numismatic material did not also come to Cuerdale via York. None of the coins was produced in the Irish Sea area, and the imported coins could just as easily have reached Cuerdale from York as from Ireland. In the case of the East Anglian and Midlands issues [that is, from other parts of the Danelaw in England], this seems considerably more likely than not. Although the non-numismatic component of the hoard does contain much Irish material, accepting that a mixed economy [one based upon both bullion and minted currency] continued to exist in the York area at this time means that there is no reason why that material could not also have accumulated in York (70-71, quoted by Graham-Campbell 155).

It would be interesting to know how Graham-Campbell adjudicates between these two options offered by others in his own mind and whether he can imagine a third possibility to harmonize them. In any case, whether the Cuerdale hoard was collected at York, perhaps as a "war chest" to help support a return of Vikings to Ireland, or the portable estate of a hypothetical refugee from the Dublin colony like Agmund of Amounderness, or a religious investment in a the next life by a devotee of Odin or one of the other Norse gods, or a more privately motivated concealment like that claimed for Egil or Skallagrim in Iceland, the Cuerdale treasure in coin, bullion, and personal adornment is an eloquent testimony to the dynamic, diverse, individualized, and international culture of the North Atlantic Vikings.