Viking age and Medieval ring pins made from copper alloy have been found all over the world from Novgorod to Newfoundland; over a third of these were found in Ireland (McEneaney & Ryan, 2004, pp. 24). The pins were used as fastenings for cloaks and dresses. Finds of these pins predating the Viking age in Ireland suggest that the pins originated in Ireland and highlight the ties between the ‘Celtic West’ and ‘Sub-Roman Britain’ (Fanning, 1994, pp.1). Vikings first appeared in Ireland in 795 and in the subsequent years settled throughout country establishing its oldest towns and cities (McEneaney et al, 2004, pp. 18).
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.
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.