Viking treasure

About the object

© York Museums Trust
© York Museums Trust

About the hoard

In 2007, in a field in Yorkshire, two men with metal detectors dug a hole and found some pieces of lead and a silver cup filled with soil. They contacted local archaeologists, who took the cup to a conservation laboratory, where the contents could be excavated carefully. Conservators discovered that the cup was packed with over 600 silver coins. It also contained jewellery and chopped-up fragments of silver called hacksilver, which is specifically identified with the Vikings.

Viking raiders

Viking currency was based on silver; they traded with silver coins, ingots and hacksilver. Status was gained and displayed through portable wealth. Viking leaders displayed their wealth by wearing silver jewellery and gained support and status by giving silver gifts. The search for portable wealth may have been one of the motives for Viking expansion beyond Scandinavia.

The silver cup was from the Frankish empire - what is now France, Germany and northern Italy - and was probably intended for use in church services. It may have been looted from a monastery by Vikings, or given to them in tribute. Bands of Vikings had raided monasteries in Britain in the 790s and early 800s, and had attacked the Frankish empire in 799.

The Vikings’ longships enabled them to voyage across seas, even reaching North America, and also to penetrate inland by river. They attacked coastal settlements, such as Byzantium (modern Istanbul) and Lindisfarne, a monastery off the coast of northeast England, and towns further inland, such as Rouen in France and York. Not all of their attacks were successful, as a mass grave of male skeletons excavated in Weymouth indicates. Studies of the bones revealed that they were from people of Scandinavian origin, violently killed and buried in a quarry pit, perhaps as the result of a failed raiding mission.

Viking traders

The Vikings used their expertise in sailing and warfare to capture slaves and seize treasure, but they also established trading connections. Viking traders opened new trade routes through the Baltic and Russia into the rich markets of Byzantine and Muslim central and western Asia. The Vale of York hoard is evidence of the Vikings’ contacts across western Europe and beyond. Most of the coins in the hoard are Anglo-Saxon, some are Viking and others are Islamic coins from central Asia. Other precious metal objects were made in Ireland, Russia and mainland Europe.

The Viking and Anglo-Saxon struggle for England

Another motive for Viking expansion was the need for land to farm, and from the 850s, they had begun to colonise large areas of northern and eastern England. Towns too, such as Dublin and Cork in Ireland, grew from settlements established by Vikings. In 867, the Vikings won control of the kingdom of Northumbria in the northeast of England. The previous year in 866, they had captured the town that was to become York - Jorvik in Danish - and established the Viking community which lasted there for some sixty years.

Then, in 927, the Anglo-Saxon king Athelstan conquered Viking York and also took control of Northumbria, uniting it with the south of Britain, already under his rule. This is the first time the north and south of England were united and they have remained so to this day. In 928 Athelstan issued coins inscribed Athelstan rex totius Britanniae, Athelstan, king of all Britain, the first king to claim this.

Some of the coins in the Vale of York hoard were issued by Athelstan in 927 and there was also one of his coins from 928. This suggests that it was probably buried in 928 and that its Viking owner had therefore stayed on in Yorkshire after the Anglo-Saxons took control. As silver formed the basis of Viking wealth and status it was often buried in times of unrest. Perhaps the hoard was hidden away for safety during disturbances that followed the Anglo-Saxon conquest of York and Northumbria. As the hoard appears to have been packed and buried carefully, it seems likely its Viking owner intended to return.

More information

The Vale of York Hoard at the British Museum


BBC: Vale of York Hoard
A History of the World in 100 Objects: The Vale of York Hoard. A short article and a 15 minute radio programme, with transcript and images.

Viking metalwork
A blog about Viking metalwork from a researcher at University College London.

About the Vikings
A short introduction to the Vikings on the British Museum website.

Viking money
An introduction to Viking money from the BBC, written by a British Museum curator. The third paragraph is particularly relevant.

Cuerdale Hoard
An article about another Viking hoard, the Cuerdale hoard, including a discussion of reasons for hoarding.

Resources for teachers
Teachers’ resources that accompanied the British Museum’s Vikings exhibition include useful background information and images.

Viking grave in Weymouth
An article about the discovery of a mass grave of Scandinavian skeletons in Weymouth.

Athelstan, Anglo-Saxon King of Britain


Next section: A bigger picture

Viking treasure