The Vale of York Hoard: The Finest Silver Viking Treasure Find In The UK
The Vale of York Hoard is a Viking hoard dating to the 10th century AD. The hoard, which consists primarily of silver coins, was discovered by a pair of metal detectorists in 2007. The objects in the hoard are from a variety of places, reflecting the international cultural contacts that were in existence during the Medieval period. The Vale of York Hoard is viewed as one of the most significant Viking discoveries in the UK in the last 150 years. Its significance is further bolstered by the fact that it was jointly acquired by the British Museum and the York Museums Trust. The Vale of York Hoard is known also as the Harrogate Hoard, or the Vale of York Viking Hoard.
The Vale of York Hoard contained a fair bit of hacksilver, which are silver objects that have been fragmented into weighted pieces of silver bullion, a well-known Viking currency form. (Yorkshire Museum)
The Vale of York Hoard: Discovered In 2007 By Father and Son
In January 2007, David Whelan and his son, Andrew, a pair of metal detectorists from Leeds, were metal-detecting in a field to the south of Harrogate, in north Yorkshire. At that time, the pair had been metal detecting for the last five years as a hobby. Their find on that winter morning, however, must have been beyond their wildest dreams. According to Andrew:
“It was a typical dreary January day, in a muddy rough ploughed field. It was a field that we wouldn't normally go in because we've never really found anything good in there, we tend to find dozens of Victorian buttons, but it was either that or go home . . .”
David continues the story of their discovery as follows:
“This time we were there about ten minutes and that’s when I got my signal - the big one! I started finding lead at first. I dug down a bit more, and I kept going, and I get more lead, more lead, and all of a sudden, this round thing fell into the bottom of the hole - came out from the side, so I'd actually just missed it. It fell into the bottom of the hole and I thought, ‘Oh dear, I’ve found an old ball cock, I’ve got a lead cistern with an old ball cock’. So I picked this round thing up, and put it on top of the ploughed land, I put my glasses on, and I looked at it, and I could see all these animals on the cup, and all these bits of silver in the top.”
A closeup image of the Vale of York Hoard gilt silver cup dated to the 9th century AD and possibly made in Carolingian France. (Yorkshire Museum)
York Hoard Contents: Distant Dirham Coins and Hacksilver
The Vale of York Hoard cup was in fact a gilt silver bowl, about the size of a small melon, within which the hoard had been placed. The elaborately decorated bowl is arguably the most spectacular object of the hoard and is believed to have been made in continental Europe, possibly France, during the middle of the 9th century AD.
The most eye-catching decorations on the bowl are the running animals: two lions and four beasts of prey. It is speculated that the cup was intended for use in church services and ended up in the hands of the Vikings either as loot stolen from a monastery, or as tribute paid to the Vikings by English powers.
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The rest of the hoard was placed within this silver bowl. Silver coins formed the bulk of the hoard, with a total of 617 pieces being recorded. One of these coins is a dirham, a silver coin most commonly associated with the Islamic world. This is one of the most exotic objects in the hoard.
This particular dirham was struck in the famous central Asian city of Samarkand, in present day Uzbekistan. It is believed that the coin was traded up rivers into Russia, whence it travelled through Scandinavia, and finally the Vikings brought it to Yorkshire.
Most of the other coins are of a less exotic origin, i.e., from Anglo-Saxon territories, and from the Viking settlement of York itself.
In addition to the 617 coins, the Vale of York Hoard also contained about 60 other silver objects. Most of these silver objects are in fact hacksilver. These are silver objects that have been broken up and whose value depended on their bullion, or weight. Additionally, some of the objects were found to have small nicks cut into them. This was meant to test the quality of the silver. These aspects are in line with the Viking’s valuing of silver according to its weight. In addition, the variety of hacksilver and coins suggests that the hoard’s owner was someone who was involved in many different forms of business.
Needless to say, the amount of silver in the Vale of York Hoard indicates that its owner was a very wealthy individual. This is further supported by the presence of a gold arm ring in the hoard. This is extraordinary, as it is claimed that gold is almost never found alongside silver in a hoard. The gold arm-ring would likely have been used as jewelry, though nothing much else is said about this artefact.
Nevertheless, according to a 10th-century-AD Arab merchant, the Vikings made neck rings for their wives by melting down the gold and silver coins that they had accumulated from their trade expeditions. One wonders if this was how the arm-ring in the Vale of York Hoard came into being.
York is represented in the center of this rare coin in the Vale of York Hoard by a small building, perhaps an early depiction of York Minster cathedral (built in the 7th century AD). The letters “EB OR AC” on either side of the structure stand for “Eboracum,” York’s Latin name. (Yorkshire Museum)
Who Owned The Hoard? Economics and Politics
The Vale of York Hoard sheds lights on several issues. As already mentioned, on the level of the individual, the hoard indicates that its owner was a wealthy person, perhaps a merchant involved in different businesses. On an economic level, the hoard reflects the trade links that were in place during the 10th century AD, which connected England, on the western end of Europe, to the Islamic world in the east, via Russia and Scandinavia.
In addition, the hoard can be connected to the political events of the time. It is believed that the Vale of York Hoard was buried shortly after 927 AD. In that year, York was captured by Athelstan, the king of the Anglo-Saxons, from the Vikings. During the 920s AD, Athelstan had been recapturing territories in England that were still under Viking rule, and the fall of York was the climax of his military campaign.
To celebrate this great triumph, Athelstan struck silver coins bearing his name on one side, and a depiction of the city on the other. York is represented in the center of the coin by a small building, perhaps an early depiction of York Minster cathedral (built in the 7th century AD). The letters “EB OR AC” on either side of the structure stand for “Eboracum,” York’s Latin name. This telling coin was part of the Vale of York Hoard and gave researchers key details about when the hoard was buried.
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The hoard also contains a coin with the inscription “EDELSTAN REX TO BRIE,” which translates to mean “Athelstan. King of all Britons.” This is related to the Athelstan’s meeting with the kings of Scotland and Wales at Eamont Bridge in Cumbria, in July 927 AD, shortly after capturing York. During the meeting, the two kings acknowledged Athelstan’s authority over them. Therefore, this coin was struck to commemorate this historical moment. Since there is only one of these coins in the hoard, and it is in near mint condition, it is assumed that the hoard was buried either in late 927 AD or in early 928 AD.
The Vale of York Hoard was valued at 1,480,000 dollars (1,260,500 Euros) by the independent Treasure Valuation Committee and declared a British Treasure (according to the UK 1996 Treasure Act) in 2009.
Needless to say, the York treasure hoard also of great historical importance as it reveals considerable information about the economic and political situation in 10th-century England.
In 2009, the hoard was jointly purchased by the British Museum and the York Museums Trust. Today, the Vale of York Hoard is on display in the Yorkshire Museum.
Top image: The mostly silver Vale of York Hoard found in 2007 by two (father and son) metal detectorists. Photo source: Wikimedia.
By Wu Mingren
(The BBC, 2007) (Culture24 Staff, 2009) (York Museums and Gallery Trust, 2021) (Woods, 2021) (York Museums Trust, 2021) (The BBC, 2014) (Current Arcaheology, 2010)