I was lucky enough to grow up with fantastic Grandparents. They’d take me and my cousins out and we’d go and explore the castles, cliffs and coasts of North Lancashire and Cumbria. Of course it was mainly ruse on my Grandad’s behalf to find a country pub he could get a decent pint in.
He had a knack of telling stories, and the knack of sitting in the front of the car ‘reminiscing’ with my Gran such that those 6-7-year olds eavesdropping from the back seat would find it all the more believable. Tales of how he stormed Lancaster Castle with Robin Hood to save Marion. Of how he hid Excalibur from Mordred in a hollowed-out oak in Silverdale, taking care of the sword for Arthur. It was he who burned the cakes, but Alfred took the blame as my Grandad was always getting in trouble for doing something wrong. This was further evidenced by my Gran’s constant berations. He’d even been at Hastings, told William to stop waving sharp sticks about as he’d have somebody's eye out. We saw a copy of the Bayeux Tapestry, and there he was, right there, the one with the big nose.
Sleipnir was the eight-legged horse born of Loki, and belonged to Odin. Loki gave birth to Sleipnir after turning himself into a female horse when his father demanded he sabotage the work of a craftsman from being able to complete the fortification of Asgard in one season.
In the early days of Valhalla, a craftsman came to visit. He offered to create a citadel around Asgard which could keep out the giants who may attack from any direction. The man claimed he could complete the fortification of Asgard in three seasons, and for payment demanded that the goddess Freyja be his bride and that he receives the sun and the moon also. The gods however thought his choice of payment was steep and negotiated that he would be paid in full, if he completed the wall in just one season and that he receives no help from any man. The man accepted this with the condition that his stallion, Svadilfari, could help. The gods were unsure, but Loki convinced them that even with the help of his horse, the man would not be able to uphold his end of the bargain, so Freyja, and the sun and moon were not at risk at all.
And so the man set to work on the first day of winter, yet it was his huge stallion that did all the work, effortlessly hauling huge boulders. The progress of the citadel progressed swiftly, and it was so tall and strong that no enemy would be able to take Asgard. Three days before the winter was over the gods sat down for counsel and discussed how they could avoid giving the man payment. Whilst discussing this the gods began to question who had agreed to the man’s terms in the first place. The consensus was that Loki was to blame. The evil Loki was demanded to obstruct the craftsman from completing the last part of the citadel so that they would not need to pay him. Loki would face violence and death if not, so he swore oath that he would stop the man and his horse from completing the citadel.
Twisted & Plaited Rod Arm Rings from the Viking Age
The Cuerdale hoard was found in 1840 during work to the banks of the River Ribble in Lancashire. The initial find weighed approximately 42.5kg and contained over 7,500 coins.[i] Thanks to the high number of coins, the hoard can be dated quite accurately, being deposited around 905-910 A.D.
The hoard is one of the largest found to date, though the British Museum does not hold the complete collection. After an inquisition in Preston in August 1840, the hoard was ‘seized into the Hands of Her Majesty in right of Her Duchy and County Palatine of Lancaster.’ Nearly 150 individuals were gifted coins and other trinkets from the hoard, and the whereabouts of all of these is not certain in 2018. James Graham-Campbell, who tried to track down the missing pieces, also theorised in his 2011 book that a number of the rarer coins went missing before the hoard made it to the inquisition, taken by the coin experts who were called in to initially assess the hoard.
The hoard contained lots of hack silver and ingots, but it also contained complete bracelets, neck rings, and rings. This week we’re going to take a quick look at the neck rings.
Neck rings from the hoard were made from twin strands of silver wire twisted together, paired with 2 or 3 more of the same, and then twisted around each other once more. These rods were then joined to the smooth rods that formed the terminals. There are other types found in the UK, but this is the most common, and makes up the majority of the Cuerdale pieces. The examples from Cuerdale tend to fasten with a simple hook and a loop, and this way of fastening is also the most common type found in Norway, Sweden, and Denmark[i].The hook and loop fastening, instead of two hooks, is clustered in the south of Norway, the east of Denmark, and the U.K. An example of the two hook fastening method was found at Halton Moor.
The complete neck ring examples from the Cuerdale hoard weigh 173g, and 188g, which is just under a mark’s worth of silver (200g).The hoard also contains a number of fragments that were originally part of complete neck rings.
There are no gold neck rings in the hoard. In fact, the only example of a gold neck ring in the UK and Ireland was found in Midlothian, Scotland, and has since vanished[ii]
Neck rings were not an easy item to make, so it is interesting to see that there are fragments of neckrings in the collection that have been cut down into smaller values of silver. Neck rings may not have been the first piece of silver a Viking would use for a financial transaction, but the evidence of portions of neck rings tells us that these pieces of jewellery were still cold, hard, bullion at the end of the day. We can draw a parallel with the long standing tradition of people pawning their jewellery to pay bills and debts.
Here’s a very condensed look at how neck rings are constructed. It’s a long and laborious process that would have taken considerably longer in the Viking period, as they would not have access to wire like we have. The first step for a silver smith would have been to draw out the wire.
We have plenty more research to undertake on the bullion economy of the Viking age, and hopefully we can talk more about that over the coming weeks. Next week we’re looking at the sagas again, and a story about Thor.
The Huxley Hoard
The lost treasure of Viking Refugees from Dublin?
This well preserved silver hoard was unearthed in 2004 in the small village of Huxley near Chester. It was found by chance by metal detectorists during a weekend rally organised by a local club. First to be uncovered, only a foot beneath the surface, were the fragments of lead that wrapped around the hoard. Under these were the 22 pieces of silver. Due to the style of the bracelets, and the designs on them, it was immediately apparent that the pieces of jewellery were from the Viking period, and they had just uncovered a hoard.
The intriguing Viking history of a Neolithic burial mound
Maes Howe chambered tomb sits at the heart of the stunning Neolithic landscape of Mainland, Orkney, in close proximity to the stone circles of Brodgar, and Stenness, and the recently discovered temple complex on the Ness of Brodgar. The mound is also home to a collection of 30 runic inscriptions, said to date from the 12th century.
But who made these inscriptions, and what do they say? The Orkneyinga Saga sheds a little light on this, and more recently, scholars[i] have translated the carvings, giving us some answers. However, this leaves us with more questions than we started with. The inscriptions in the tomb talk about buried treasure, they refer to the mound as Orkahaugr – Orc Mound, not Maes Howe, and the earth mound itself seems to have been bolstered in the 9th century[ii].
Were there piles of gold under the earth? Where is it now? Were orcs marauding across the land? The runes and sagas don’t tell us everything, some of the stories may be fabricated, and much is left undocumented.
So let’s start at the beginning. Maes Howe is around 4,800 years old. There is no evidence to suggest that burial chambers of this period had gold and silver placed in them. If it had been opened for the first time today, then we would expect to find nothing but bones. Archaeological excavations at the site have shown that the mound was re-enforced in the 9th century, with more earth added to the mound. The end of the 9th century corresponds with the start of the Orkneyinga Saga, and the arrival of the Earls of Orkney.
King Harald Fine-Hair of Norway ruled from 879-930A.D. The Saga tells us that he gave the land to Earl Rognvald after the Earl’s son, Ivar died fighting for the King in/around Ireland and the Isle of Man. Rognvald hands the land to his brother, Sigurd, who becomes the first Earl of Orkney. After Sigurd, the title passes to his son, Guthrum, then to Hallard, Sigurd’s nephew. Hallard couldn’t keep raiders at bay, so skulked back to Norway with his tail between his legs. Two Danes, Thorir Tree-Beard, and Kalf Scurvy decide to take the islands, so Earl Rognvald sent his youngest son, Einar to remove the Danes. There was much turmoil in the late 9th, and early 10th century in Orkney, but the Norse were certainly there.
There is more than one theory to explain why Vikings re-enforced the mound in the early years of the Earls. One[iii] is that it was stripped of the old bones, and turned into a burial mound by the vikings. Another, put forward by Dr Alexandra Sanmark[iv] is that it is was a thing site – a Viking parliament, and that Maes Howe was not actually called Orkahaugr by the Vikings, because Mesow (as written in the 1845 New Statistical Account) could be old norse for Meadow Mound.
Orkahaugr is only referenced twice in history – once in the Orkneyinga Saga – it remains in the English translation of the late 1800’s[v], but was swapped out for Maes Howe in a later edition[vi], and in the actual chamber itself in one of the rune carvings. Despite how fun it sounds, there is little evidence to suggest that the Vikings thought Orkney a mystical land filled with boggarts, fey creatures, and orcs, and Orkahaugr may simply mean ‘that big mound in Ork’ instead of a mound filled with Orcs. The Irish referred to the lands as Insi Orc, the land of the wild boars. We simply don’t know why it was referred to as Orkahaugr instead of Maes Howe, though it should be noted that the Saga was written in Iceland, and the man carving the runes may not have been native to the Orkneys.
And the treasure that these Vikings speak of? The inscriptions say it was hidden to the north-west of the mound, that is was removed by Hakon, and that it was taken away 3 nights before they opened the mound. Is any of this true? We will never know, but it could be said that if the theory about the 9th century Vikings burying someone in the tomb was correct, then there could well have been gold and silver among the grave goods. Or it could simply have been a story or myth told in Viking times to explain these huge monuments in the landscape. The Orkneyinga Saga makes no reference to the contents of the mound.
Do we actually know for sure who carved the runes in Maes Howe? The Orkneyinga Saga says that Earl Harald was travelling from Hamna Voe to Firth 13 days after Christmas, with 100 men, and they sheltered from a snow storm in the Howe. Two men went mad during the night. It is suggested that it was these men that wrote some of the runic inscriptions. This could be true, though you may struggle to fit 100 men in Maes Howe for the night, as it’s not that big internally. Also mentioned in the saga are the men of Earl Rognvald Kali, who went on crusade in 1153. This looks to be around the same time as the incident with Earl Harald, however there is no mention of Maes Howe in the Saga in relation to Earl Rognvald Kali. However, the date ties with the style of runes they are using, the fact that they use the word crusader in one inscription, and the addition of a cross carved into one of the stones, so it could have been these men.
Beyond the date of the original tomb, the earth works done in the 9th century, and the runes dated to the 12th century, it looks like we can theorise until Ragnarok about what really happened inside that mound. What we can certainly take away from the carvings inside Maes Howe, is that runes do have immense power. At some point, men called Hegli, Erlinger, Thorir, Tryggar, Ofram, Thorfir, Ottarfila, and Haermund Hardaxe stood in that small, dark space and left their mark, so that we may sit here nearly 1000 years later, and still know their names.
[i] John Mitchell. Mesehow: Illustrations of the Runic Literature of Scandinavia, Translations in Danish and English of the Inscriptions in Mesehowe, Visits of the Northern Sovereigns to Orkney, Notes, Vocabularies, etc. Edinburgh: 1863.
[iii] Sigurd Towrie. http://www.orkneyjar.com/
[iv] Dr Alexandra Sandmark. Althing and lawthing in Orkney. The Orcadian 2012
[v] Joeseph Anderson. Orkneyinga Saga 1873
[vi] Palsson Hermann, and Paul Edwards. Orkneyinga saga : the history of the Earls of Orkney. Penguin Classics, 1981