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'Viking' Lead Trade Weights

Updated: Apr 24, 2022

This week, in a repurposing of my Masters Degree dissertation, we have a look at the trade weights used by the Vikings. Often found by metal-detectorists and amateur archaeologists, these are often considered as diagnostic of the presence of Vikings within England. But what were they used for, and what can they tell us about their owners? And why were some embedded with such impressive metalwork?

Explaining Viking Trade Weights

'Viking-Age’ trade weights are a widely attested phenomena in Scandinavia, but equally so in England. Manufactured in a broad range of materials and alloys (Maleszka 2003, 286), they are understood to form part of the system of Gewichtsgeldwirtschaft (bullion economy): a process of exchange of precious metal based on weight, common in Scandinavia (Kruse 1988, 285). In conjunction with a set of pan-scale or balances, repurposed or looted metal (primarily silver) could be exchanged. Figure 1 illustrates an example of such an ensemble excavated from a Scandinavian grave in Kiloran Bay in the Hebrides, presumably representing a tool-kit for trade.

FIGURE 1 - A balance set and lead weights from a Scandinavian grave in Kiloran Bay, Inner Hebrides (National Museums Scotland n.d.).

Lead Weights

Weights cast from lead are the most frequently occurring sub-category. Maleszka has suggested material variation is largely a function of geography although this seems unconvincing (Maleszka 2003, 289). Notable concentrations have been found at settlements in Dublin and Woodstown in Ireland (Wallace 2013) and Kaupang in Norway (Pederson 2007). They appear also in funerary contexts, notably at Kiloran Bay (Scotland) and Kilmainham-Islandbridge (Ireland) (Tweddle 1983, 25). In England, substantial corpora of lead weights have been published from Torksey (Lincolnshire) (Hadley and Richards 2016, Balckburn 2002), York (North Yorkshire) (Mainman and Rogers 2000) and Cottam B (North Yorkshire) (Haldenby and Kershaw 2014). It is only the last of these, however, where an in-depth analysis of the weights has been undertaken. They are also found frequently as single finds by field-walkers and metal-detectorists.

The Danelaw and its Economy

England’s corpus of ‘Viking-Age’ lead weights is a result of its period of conquest, and the establishment of the so-called ‘Danelaw’. The Scandinavian settlement of England in the mid-ninth century is a poorly understood and widely controversial topic. Attested most completely by the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle (hereafter ASC), a loosely defined area of Scandinavian control ebbed and flowed with periods of reconquest and assimilation. The scale of this settlement has proved a serious point of historiographical contention. A broad ‘minimalist’ camp, down-playing the scale and significance of the settlement and championed most substantially by Sawyer (1971) contrasts a ‘maximalist’ camp, stressed more recently by archaeologists (Richards and Haldenby 2018), linguists (Dance 2012) and toponymists (Abrams and Parson 2004). Crucially for England, Kershaw suggests a dual currency under Scandinavian occupation: bullion used alongside coins, and thus the use of lead weights (Kershaw 2017, 174). The chronology is imprecise, but the continued existence of this bullion-weight economy in England, and by extension the need for weights, has been suggested until at least AD930 (Ibid., 185).

Embedded Weights

What is actually embedded inside the weight varies substantially. Some have glasswork or shells in them, but metalwork tends to be the most frequent. Coins are relatively well represented, too. Decorative metalwork is often embedded within weights - occasionally this comes from Scandinavia, but normally it is from the British Isles - either 'Anglo-Saxon' or Irish. It is remarkable that, when metal is reused, it tends to deliberately centre on a re-used decorative design. This seems very deliberate. Figure 2, below, illustrates one such example.

Why embed decorative metalwork and deliberate symbols within the weights? It is the central argument of my thesis that these weights can be interpreted in line with broader models of ‘Viking’ loot reuse, and subsequently are to be understood as items with cultural currency.

Viking Loot Re-Use

There are large quantities of ‘Insular’ decorative metalwork found in Scandinavia, especially (although not exclusively) in funerary contexts. This has been broadly noted for some time,

starting with the simple cataloging of ‘Insular’ items by Petersen (1940), Bakka (1965), and indeed in Wamers’ (1983) early work.

How and why are these items in Scandinavia? Ashby reconceptualizes the cause of the ‘Viking-Age’ as a process of ‘status fever’ (Ashby 2015, 93). ‘Insular’ metalwork obtained through raiding, symbolic of ‘sorties into the unknown’ and masculine prowess, acts as a physical expression of prestige (Ibid., 96). Reuse, for example in brooches at Kaupang noted by Wamers, is understood to deliberately draw on this (Wamers 2011, 96-7). Against Barrett’s simple conception of ‘bride-wealth’, it is the symbolic resonance of these items that is relevant (Barrett 2008, 680-1).

In this, Ashby is contextualising a set of long-established theoretical standpoints within a ‘Viking-Age’ context. The first is the notion of object biographies. The literature for this is vast but Gosden and Marshall summarise succinctly: ‘objects become invested with meaning through the social interactions they are caught up in’ (Gosden and Marshall 1999, 170), and these meanings are ‘composed of shifts of context and perspective’ (Ibid., 174). Heen-Pettersen and Murray recent exploration of ‘material citations’ in the ‘Insular’ Melhus shrine in Norway has validated this approach in the ‘Viking’ context, although its strong ecclesiastical focus is less relevant here (Heen-Pettersen and Murray 2018, 72).

Most models understand trade as the primary tool for the acquisition of object biographies (Gosden and Marshall 1999, 174). Instead, Ashby draws on the work of Helms and the idea of geographical dislocation. Helms conceptualises ‘esoteric knowledge’, a tool used by elites to gain and maintain power, to extend beyond the cosmological into the geographical (Helms 1988, 261). In material-cultural terms, items from physically distant and culturally ‘alien’ lands are taken to impart ‘great pride’ (Ibid., 264). Although the frequency of ‘Insular’ metalwork in Scandinavia suggests we are not dealing exclusively with Helms’ kings, ‘Insular’ styles appear to have had an active and widely understood symbolism across the ‘Viking’ world. As an expression of the ‘Other’, they represent ‘a particular resonance or even ‘magic’ relating to [their] exotic provenance’ (Ashby 2015, 96).

Ashby’s focus on raiding has not received universal support. Mikkelsen instead attributes much of the religious ‘Insular’ metalwork in Scandinavia to the process of Christianisation by missionaries (Mikkelsen 2019, 167). This seems less convincing, given the sheer quantity of early metalwork. However, if a raiding source is contested, the items still hold significance for their geographically and conceptually ‘alien’ origin. Either way, this is an understanding of intellectual and imagined geography: a construction of boundaries, the crossing of which gives the items a symbolic significance.

Embedded Weights as Symbols

With embedded lead weights, the case is clearly more complex. It's clear that Anglo-Saxon and Irish designs are consistently and ostentatiously reused, with a focus on identifiable Insular patterns. An economically functional geographic distribution implies trade providing a platform to display the personalisation of these and their biographies.

However, the metalwork is found within the area of its production and has not crossed geographical boundaries. It is not impossible that these weights were produced in Scandinavia and brought over by raiders and later settlers, although their prevalence in the Irish-connected York-Chester-Cumbria zone makes this unlikely. Importance therefore lies in understanding boundaries as imaginary as much as geographical. It seems that the act of owning Anglo-Saxon and Irish items imparted prestige on Scandinavians even when in England. A conceptual boundary between the Scandinavian mainland and the British Isles had been crossed during settlement. This is made clear by the fact that weights with embedded Irish metalwork are found also in Ireland itself: it is not the transposing of items over the Irish Sea that brings cultural relevance, but the re-appropriated into ‘Viking’ hands of clearly ‘alien’ symbols.

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