The voice of archaeology in Britain and beyond

Cover of British Archaeology 97

Issue 97

November/December 2007



Curlew care leads to lost royal residence find

Wat's Dyke dated: was it Coenwulf's dyke?

Little dig goes to big festival

Orkney finds confirm early Scottish colonisation

In Brief & Phase 2


Made in China
The exhibition that you will never forget opens in London

Viking treasure
An early inside look at the Viking hoard from Harrogate

Caribbean tragedy: under the volcano
David Miles and Julian Munby say island heritage matters on Montserrat

on the web

Recommended websites
Archaeological science, and digging up a hearth (and home)


Views and responses

CBA correspondent

Campaigns, comment and communications from the CBA
Dan Hull explains the CBA's pioneering initiatives in archaeological publishing


ISSN 1357-4442

Editor Mike Pitts


The Harrogate Hoard: St Peter Islam & Thor in the melting pot

Early this year a silver gilt cup crammed with 685 pieces of metal, mostly scrap silver and coins, was found near Harrogate. Barry Ager, Amy Cooper and Gareth Williams offer a preliminary description of this extraordinary Viking find, declared treasure on July 19.

During an unpromising detecting session last January near Harrogate, North Yorkshire David Whelan found lots of lead which he interpreted as an old cistern. He was not surprised to find what he took to be the ball cock. Putting his glasses on, he was amazed to discover it was a beautiful silver cup. With his son Andrew, he recognised a stray coin from the cup as a penny of Edward the Elder (king of Wessex 899–924), and realised it was a hoard.

The Whelans promptly told the Portable Antiquities Scheme. Only four coins and a decorative chain had fallen from the cup, and the finders showed great restraint by not removing other objects that were showing. They also resisted the temptation to clean anything. Realising the magnitude of their discovery, the Whelans acted responsibly at every stage. They kept the objects in optimum condition and cooperated fully with everyone who became involved, as the cup was moved down to the British Museum for excavation and conservation.

"As exciting as finding the hoard", they explained, "was being welcomed to the British Museum to watch the conservator carefully remove the individual items from the cup. Seeing a gold bracelet gradually appear through layers of coins is something we will never forget". Excavating the cup took a week, working through the contents in 1cm layers. Fortunately the soil inside was light and sandy and with a few exceptions separating items was fairly straight forward.

X-rays of the cup before the excavation began revealed large numbers of individual coins, together with several bulkier objects in the middle and towards the top. Even so, nobody predicted quite how much the cup would contain. Early medieval coins are very thin, and a surprising number can be packed into a small space, as can small, compact pieces of silver. Altogether in and around the cup were a gold arm-ring, 67 pieces of silver comprising four arm-rings and chopped-up fragments of brooches, ingots and rods (hack-silver) and 617 silver coins.

This combination confirmed early suspicions that this was an important Viking hoard – indeed, the most important English find of its type since the famous Cuerdale hoard, found near Preston, Lancashire in 1840. The significance of the new hoard lies not only in its size, but in the variety of its contents and the historical story that they tell.

The most important individual object is the cup itself. This has similarities with a number of other pieces from northern Europe, and especially with a cup found in a Viking hoard at Halton Moor in Lancashire in 1815. The two are thought to have been produced in the same ninth century workshop, perhaps even as part of a set, but while the Halton Moor hoard has been dated to the 1020s, the new Harrogate hoard was buried around a century earlier.

Both vessels are of Frankish manufacture, decorated with leaf scrolls and roundels containing individual animals. The vine scroll was a common symbol for Christ in this period, and the animals probably also have Christian symbolism. These and other related cups have been interpreted as church vessels, suggesting that the Harrogate cup was either looted from a Frankish church or monastery, or perhaps paid in tribute to avoid plunder and destruction.

The contents of the cup show not just the geographical range of Viking contacts, but also the cultural and religious diversity. The finds' sources range from Afghanistan to Ireland, via Russia, Scandinavia, England and the Frankish kingdoms. Among the coins are silver dirhams from the Middle East, each of which carries the shahada, the Islamic declaration of faith. The hoard also contains coins from Viking York, which were issued in the name of St Peter, but with the "I" of "PETRI" forming the handle of a stylised hammer, symbol of the Viking god Thor. These coins probably represent a stage in the conversion process in which the popular worship of Thor was assimilated into Christianity by identifying him with St Peter.

Other interesting finds include a rare example of a gold armring, and a fragment of a twisted silver neck-ring from northern Russia. The Arab writer Ibn Fadlan (inspiration for Michael Crichton's Eaters of the Dead) describes how Rus traders took silver dirhams like those found in the hoard and turned them into neck-rings for their women. Complete neck-rings of this type indeed seem to represent multiples of the weight of Islamic dirhams.

The coins also provide insights into the dating of the hoard, and into the political situation in northern England in the 920s. In addition to the St Peter coins, the hoard contains other Viking issues in the name of St Martin of Lincoln and the Viking ruler Sihtric (921–27), together with a new but related type from the previously unrecorded mint of RORIVACASTR. This has been tentatively identified with Rocester in Staffordshire, suggesting that Viking control extended further in this period than has previously been realised.The hoard ends with coins of the Anglo-Saxon king Athelstan (924–39), who took control of Viking Northumbria in 927, a key moment in the unification of England. The latest coin in the hoard gives Athelstan the title "King of all Britain", a title which he adopted after the submission of other British rulers in the autumn of 927. Historians have generally accepted that Athelstan had complete control over England in the years that followed, but another new coin in the hoard appears to be a Viking imitation of the first type issued by Athelstan after he took control of Northumbria. This suggests that his control was less complete than has sometimes been thought. The existence of such a valuable hoard also points to the survival of at least one major Viking chieftain in North Yorkshire for a year or two after Athelstan took control.

Subsequent excavation of the findspot (by York Archaeological Trust, who will also be carrying out the future excavations, with financial support from the British Museum), revealed a feature interpreted as a plough furrow that intersects with David Whelan's hole. This suggests that the original location of the find may lie west of the area excavated, and that the hoard was dragged by the plough. Nothing else of note was discovered. A geophysical survey revealed no archaeological features in the vicinity. Further excavation is planned which may confirm the hoard's isolation.

Now that the hoard has been declared treasure by the coroner, the next stage is for it to be valued. The British Museum and the York Museums Trust hope to acquire the hoard together, and there are provisional plans to display the hoard in London, Harrogate and York, as well as in other venues around the country. This is subject to the museums raising the money to pay a full market price for the hoard, which will be shared between the finders and the landowner.

Barry Ager is curator of the continental early medieval collection at the British Museum; Amy Cooper is Yorkshire finds liaison officer based at the WYAS Advisory Service; Gareth Williams is curator of early medieval coinage at the British Museum.

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