Viking Hoard Archaeology: Complicating the Plundering Stereotype

While Vikings are historically viewed as violent, plundering people, the archaeology of Viking hoards has added some intricacies to their story that may seem surprising and contradictory to the typical trope. At the Viking hoard at the site of Fröjel on the Swedish island of Gotland, archaeologists uncovered evidence of violence and coercion to obtain and maintain their wealth, but also signs of trade, business, diplomacy, and international relations. In addition to evidence of external affairs, metal workshops and techniques to determine pure silver versus impure silver show a high level of intelligence and technology.

An excavation unit at Fröjel of a silver-smelting workshop (Photo by Daniel Weiss)

The location of Fröjel on the island of Gotland, Sweden (image created by author using Google Maps)

The vast count and variety of coins found shows just how far the Vikings traveled or at least the origins of the people they traded with; several of the artifacts signify further travel than the Vikings were originally thought to have undertaken. Archaeologists and historians can use the coins and foreign products to trace the distances and connections of the world for a point in time when a lot of the globe was not very accessible.

In regards to the structure of the island and its governance, the locations and changes of concentrations of the hoards indicated shifts in power, allowing archaeologists to sketch a potential timeline for the island and the Vikings who lived there. The earlier hoards were dispersed throughout the island, demonstrating a distribution of wealth. However, as time passed, the later hoards became larger and more concentrated, illustrating how the population’s wealth and power was held by the fewer Vikings who were burying it.

In addition to the physical artifacts that the hoard revealed, it also changes the interpretation of land use and alludes to other potentially significant sites nearby. Before the discovery of vast Viking activity across the island, Gotland was believed to be mostly used for farming. The significance of the hoards led to the successful search for a nearby Viking cemetery and a hypothesis that the arm jewelry found was made on the island turned up a workshop.

Hoards are fabulous stashes of artifacts of a particular moment in time, but it is not easy “to distinguish between hoards originally intended to be recovered and valuables buried with no reclamation intended” (Renfrew, Bahn, 47) Regardless, both interpretations indicate the hoards contained items that were specially valued. However, due to the assumption that these hoards are specially valued, archaeologists have a hard time investigating the more day to day parts of Viking culture from sites like these. The Principal Investigator of Fröjel, Dan Carlsson, can speak to great lengths about the significance of silver coins in the Viking culture, but can he point to any evidence from the hoard that shows what they ate on a daily basis? For further research and study, additional Viking hoards, like ones found in Scotland and England allow a variety of other historical discoveries that complicate and enhance history as we know it.

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