Did Charlemagne Pay Off the Vikings With This Silver Hoard?
Archaeologists in Poland have unearthed a coin hoard from the early Carolingian dynasty in a field in the remote north-east of the country. The coin hoard treasure indicates a connection between the ancient Viking trade center at Truso and the Carolingian dynasty to the south, but that might not be the whole story.
The silver coin hoard was discovered near the town of Biskupiec, and the rare coins were minted around 1,200 years ago. The size of the hoard of this type is unprecedented in Poland, and it is suspected they represent part of a historic king’s ransom paid to save Paris from a Viking invasion.
European History and the Unusual Polish Coin Hoard
The Carolingian dynasty, built by the Franks, a group of Germanic peoples, existed between 750 and 887 AD. Although not the first Carolingian, King Charlemagne, also known as “Charles the Great” took the dynasty to new heights of power, and the dynasty ruled over much of France, Germany, Switzerland and northern Italy in the eighth and ninth centuries.
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The Emperor Charlemagne. (1837) By Louis-Félix Amiel. (Public Domain)
Metal detectorists identified the first part of the 1,200-year-old coin hoard in November 2020 in a field near the town of Biskupiec, in northeast Poland. By March 2021, archaeologist Luke Szczepanski and his team from the nearby Ostróda Museum had unearthed a total of 118 coins from the secret location. Of the total, 117 coins were minted during the reign of the Carolingian emperor Louis the Pious, who ruled from 814 until 840 AD, and one coin was minted during the reign of his son Charles the Bald, who ruled until 877.
A closeup of one of the Carolingian coins found in the Polish coin hoard near Biskupiec, Poland. (Ostróda Museum)
The Coin Hoard May Have Been A Ransom Payment to Vikings
Putting the rarity of the hoard in perspective, only three such coins with Latin inscriptions, and a central crucifix, had previously been found in Poland. Archaeologists think the coin hoard may have come from the Viking trading town of Truso, which was located about 100 kilometers (60 miles) west of the farmer's field in which the coins were found. According to the Polish police, if the origin of the coins was indeed Truso it is possible that they were part of “an immense ransom of gold and silver paid by a Carolingian king to prevent invading Vikings from sacking the city of Paris.”
Professor Mateusz Bogucki, an archaeologist and coin expert at the University of Warsaw in Poland, recently told Live Science that it is possible the coins were part of the suggested “immense ransom of gold and silver” paid to the Vikings. However, whether or not this origin story is correct, “the distinctiveness” of the coins, says Bogucki, raises a set of interesting questions about their origins.
A Carolingian silver denier issued by King Lothair I (840-855), struck in Dorestad after 850 AD, which is identical to some of the coins in the recently discovered Polish coin hoard. (Numisantica / CC BY-SA 3.0)
Another Theory Suggests A Pre-Polish Slavic-Viking Trade Route
What is perhaps most special about this hoard of 118 coins is that it was hidden, or lost, at a time when the first medieval Polish kingdoms hadn’t even developed. This links the coins with the Slavic tribes who ruled the region, and it is known they used mainly Arabian silver dirhams to pay for deliveries of slaves that they procured from the Muslim caliphate. For this reason, such coins are regarded as “extremely rare” in Poland, because they were discovered in northeastern Poland, so far beyond the Carolingian dynasty’s reach.
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Professor Bogucki said that while it “seems likely” that the owner of the hoard of coins found near Biskupiec had obtained them in Truso, alternatively they might have been en route to Truso, to be used “for trading.” Szczepanski told Science in Poland that the region was probably an uninhabited wilderness at the time and archaeologists have not found any traces of a nearby settlement, hence they think the coins were being transported either to or from Biskupiec.
It might never be understood if the coins were “travelling” to or from Truso. But in the world we live in today, where tangible stories are much more “fund worthy” than actual facts, there is little doubt that the Polish museum cabinet will tell the tale that these three coins were “possibly” originally part of a ransom paid by the Carolingian King Charles the Bald to the Vikings threatening Paris, his capital city.
Top image: Some of the 118 Carolingian coins in the rare and unusual coin hoard found in northeastern Poland. Source: Ostróda Museum
By Ashley Cowie