Viking Treasure Trove Discovered in Swedish Garden

James Owen
for National Geographic News
September 24, 2007
A thousand-year-old Viking treasure trove has been dug up in a garden in Sweden, archaeologists report.

The hoard of silver coins from Europe, central Asia, and the Middle East was unearthed earlier this month by a gardener tending his vegetable patch on the Baltic island of Gotland (see Sweden map).

So far 69 coins dating from the late 900s and early 1000s have been found, said archaeologist Dan Carlsson of Gotland University.

The find contains rare early Viking money and foreign currency from present-day England, Germany, Ireland, Iraq, and Uzbekistan.

Along with a similar cache recently discovered in England, the new find paints a picture of Vikings trading and looting their way across Europe and beyond.

The Anglo-Saxon coins were likely either plunder or protection money known as danegeld, which was paid by regional rulers to keep Vikings from attacking, experts said.

The Islamic coins are products of the Vikings' extensive trade, which the Norse conducted by sailing south along Russia's long rivers to reach the Middle East.

Between 700 and 800 silver hoards have been discovered so far on Gotland, which was ideally located as a Viking trading center, Carlsson said.

(See a photo of a Viking stash of Arabic coins found in Gotland in October 2006.)

"Gotland was situated right in the middle between western and eastern Europe," he said.

"Most of the coins [found on the island] were actually Arabic coins [that came] up the Russian rivers."

"Remarkable" Discoveries

Gareth Williams, curator of early medieval coinage at the British Museum in London, said the concentration of early medieval coins in Gotland is "remarkable."

"We've got more surviving late Anglo-Saxon coins from Gotland than we have from Britain, despite the fact it's not a very big island and quite a way away," he added.

The newfound hoard, buried some 1,300 feet (400 meters) from the site of an ancient Viking settlement, also includes highly unusual coins minted for Olof Skötkonung, a regional Swedish king, Carlsson said.

"He was the first king that minted coins in Sweden," he said.

"He obviously learned [coin-making] from England," he added. "Many of the coins are copies of English coins, most of all Ethelred coins."

Ethelred II was England's monarch from 978 to 1016. Also known as Ethelred the Unready due to his lack of reliable counsel, he paid massive amounts of "tribute money" to the Vikings and is featured on Anglo-Saxon coins discovered in the garden cache.

Sihtric, the Viking ruler of Dublin, Ireland, was another king whose money turned up in the hoard.

Williams noted that a number of the Gotland coins show knife marks left by "pecking," a practice used to test whether they were genuine silver or counterfeits made of lead.

"A huge amount of coinage was making its way through there, more than the locals could ever possibly have had a use for," Williams added.

Many researchers believe these hoards functioned like safe deposit boxes: Viking cash deposits were hidden in the ground for safety until needed.

Other experts suggest that the caches had a religious significance and were saved up and buried by their owners for use in the afterlife.

(Read related story: "Vikings Filed Their Teeth, Skeleton Study Shows" [February 3, 2006].)

Huge Haul Found in England

The new find follows the discovery earlier this year of a major Viking hoard by amateur treasure hunters in northeast England.

That hoard was said by experts to be among the most important ever found in Britain.

Unearthed by amateurs using metal-detectors in a field near Harrogate, North Yorkshire (see map), the treasure included a rare gold armband, jewelery, and more than 600 coins collected from as far away as Afghanistan.

The hoard was stashed inside a decorated gilt silver vessel thought to have been looted from a monastery in France.

The treasure is dated to between 927 and 929, when the Anglo-Saxons regained control of northeast England from the Vikings.

A number of Viking hoards found in the region were buried around this period, according to Williams, of the British Museum.

"This was probably linked to the Anglo-Saxons pushing northwards," he said.

The Harrogate treasure likely belonged to an important Viking chieftain, he added.

Researchers can only speculate why he never retrieved it.

"He could have been killed in battle, forced to leave the region, or died of old age before he had a chance to recover it," Williams said.

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