Buried hoards of gold and silver

These coins are part of the Cuerdale hoard, a group of about 7,000 coins, some cut in pieces as was typical, found in 1840 by workers in Cuerdale, Lancashire. This is largest silver hoard in Viking Age, with estimated burial date of 905 A.D. “The Cuerdale hoard” by akhenatenator is in the public domain (CC0 1.0)

One of the fascinating things to consider about the Viking and Roman ages is what economies looked like without a banking system or even a rudimentary financial system.

Ponder just a few of the implications.

Merely having coins allowed for trade that was more complex than barter.

There was no way to transfer money over distances. To move wealth required carrying precious metals or tradable goods. Returning from a successful trade mission or raiding expedition meant you carried your wealth with you.

There was no way to store wealth in any sort of financial intermediary. No banks. No Credit Unions. No money market accounts. No Schwab or Vanguard to hold your stocks. No stocks at all. Not even bearer bonds. No government securities for safety.

No, instead if you had wealth you needed to hold silver or gold. Putting it under the mattress or anywhere in the house or even in the area of the farm buildings made your wealth subject to theft by whatever marauder or king’s representative that meandered through. Instead you would bury your wealth.

Minting of silver and gold coins shows the foundational purpose of money:

  • medium of exchange,
  • store of value, and
  • unit of account.

The Viking age shows all three quite well.

That is where the large number of hoards of buried treasures come into play.

If you weren’t able to escape the raiders and were either killed, or abducted as slaves, or run out of the country, you wouldn’t be able to reclaim your buried stash of wealth. Or, if you forgot which tree you hid the coins by, you were out of luck.

Thus, we read of many hoards of buried coins.

Every time you read of some stash of wealth discovered in a hoard, remember that it is a large amount of wealth that someone accumulated, buried, and then was never able to recover.

Sizes of discovered hoards 

For an illustration, consider Vikings at War by Kim Hjardar and Vegard Vike which describes a hoard which was discovered in 1802 on the island of Hare in Lough Ree.  There were 10 gold arm-rings. Weight of them is cited as about 5 kilos. The book says that is the largest hoard of gold found from the Viking Age.

Let’s ponder:

  • 5 kilos – assume that exact amount as a point estimate
  • 2.2 #/kilo
  • 11.02 pounds
  • 16 ounces to a pound, since I’m assuming a reference to kilos is modern weights, not troy
  • 176 ounces of gold, approximately, avoirdupois
  • 16:1 – typical ratio of gold to silver according to Viking: The Norse Warrior’s [Unofficial] Manual by John Haywood
  • 2,816 ounces of silver, approximately

That is a massive amount of wealth that someone never came back for. Oh, that wealth also never went to the heirs either. Or was used for some productive purpose.

In The Sea Wolves: A History of the Vikings, Lars Brownworth, gives a hint at the size of the slave trade at the same time as he looked at one aspect of hoards. He points out there have been more than 10,000 silver coins from the Islamic world found in various hoards just in Sweden. Most of those coins probably came back to Sweden in exchange for prisoners sold into slavery. Some may have been from trade, but most of the contact with Muslims was to sell slaves.

He  points out the found hoards would be some unknown fraction of all the Islamic coins arriving in Sweden.

For a third example, consider page 36 of The Vikings, from the British Museum and Metropolitan Museum of Art, which provides a general framework for the amount of coins found in hoards around Scandinavia. Finds are:

  • Over 60,000 coins from the Islamic world (which would have been acquired primarily from slave trading) (I note this tally is for all of the Scandinavian world, while the previous comment is for Islamic coins found in Sweden),
  • 70,000 coins from German mints, dated in late 10th and 11th centuries
  • 40,000 coins from England

From context the tally from England does not include the booty from renewed raids in the late 10th century.

The Viking, by Tre Tryckare, on page 51 says about 200,000 coins from the Viking age have been found in Scandinavia.

Again, remember that is what has been found in hoards. It does not include what was melted or used in trade. It does not include what is still buried today.

Keep in mind those stashes of somewhere between 170,000 and 200,000 buried coins represents massive wealth that was not recovered by the original owners.

As you ponder those hoards of gold and silver and other precious trinkets, keep in mind each of those finds represents treasure that somebody buried for safekeeping but was never recovered and put to use.

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