On Radio 4 Now

Midweek

21:30 - 21:58

Libby Purves meets actor Brian Cox and singer June Tabor.

Coming up at: 21:58

Weather

View full schedule

Episode Transcript

Episode 56 - Vale of York Hoard

Vale of York Hoard (buried around 927 AD). Viking objects; found near Harrogate, Yorkshire

On the surface, everything is idyllic . . . imagine a broad green field in Yorkshire. In the distance rolling hills, woods and a light morning mist - it's the epitome of a peaceful, unchanging England. But scratch this surface - or more appropriately, wave a metal detector over it - and a very different England emerges, a land of violence and panic, not at all secure behind its defending sea, but terrifyingly vulnerable to invasion. And it was in a field like this, 1,100 years ago, that a frightened man buried a great collection of silver, jewellery and coins, that linked this part of England to what would then have seemed unimaginably distant parts of the world - to Russia, the Middle East and Asia. The man was a Viking, and this was his treasure.

"Suddenly, a metal detector in a field in Harrogate uncovers this extraordinary treasure..." (Michael Wood)

"I crouched down in the soil and you could see the edge of a few coins sticking out of the top of it..." (Andrew Whelan)

"There, packed in, are these hundreds of coins and these arm-rings, these pieces of silver." (MW)

"... put it in a sandwich box, wrapped it all up, and took it home." (AW)

"You're right there with this material, that can take you back to that tremendous moment in English history, when the kingdom of England was first created." (MW)

"... things you dream of, but you don't actually expect to happen." (AW)

This week we're sweeping across the vast expanse of Europe and Asia between the ninth and the thirteenth centuries. And once again we're not going to be focussed on the Mediterranean: we're dealing with two great arcs of trade - one that begins in Iraq and Afghanistan, rises north into Russia and ends here in Britain, and another in the south, spanning the Indian Ocean from Indonesia to Africa. The week's objects range from today's precious Viking treasure from Yorkshire to a few pottery fragments from a beach in Africa. Between them, they bring to life the travellers, the traders and the raiders who helped to shape this world.

When you use the words "traders and raiders", one group of people above all springs to mind: the Vikings. Vikings have always excited the European imagination and their reputation has fluctuated violently. In the nineteenth century, the British saw them as savage bad guys - horn-helmeted rapers and looters. For the Scandinavians, of course, it was different: the Vikings there were the all-conquering heroes of Nordic legend. The Vikings then went through a stage of being seen by historians as rather civilised - more tradesmen and travellers than pillagers - in fact they became almost cuddly. This recent discovery of the Vale of York Hoard makes them seem a bit less cuddly and looks set to revive the aggressive Vikings of popular tradition, but now with a dash of cosmopolitan glamour. And the truth, I think, is that that's what the Vikings have always been about: glitz with violence.

The England of the early 900s was divided between territories occupied by the Vikings - most of the north and the east - while the south and the west were controlled by the great Anglo-Saxon kingdom of Wessex. The re-conquest of the Viking territories by the Anglo-Saxons was the great event of tenth-century Britain, and our treasure both pinpoints one tiny part of this national epic, and connects it to the immense world of Viking trade.

The hoard was found in the winter of 2007. Here's father and son, David and Andrew Whelan, who were metal-detecting in a field to the south of Harrogate, in north Yorkshire.

"It was a typical dreary January day, in a muddy rough ploughed field. It was a field that we wouldn't normally go in because we're never really found anything good in there, we tend to find dozens of Victorian buttons, but it was either that or go home, so..." (Andrew Whelan)

"This time we were there about ten minutes and that's when I got my signal - the big one! I started finding lead at first. I dug down a bit more, and I kept going, and I get more lead, more lead, and all of a sudden, this round thing fell into the bottom of the hole - came out from the side, so I'd actually just missed it. It fell into the bottom of the hole and I thought, 'Oh dear, I've found an old ball cock, I've got a lead cistern with an old ball cock'. So I picked this round thing up, and put it on top of the ploughed land, I put my glasses on, and I looked at it, and I could see all these animals on the cup, and all these bits of silver in the top." (Dave Whelan)

"I crouched down in the soil, and you could see the edge of a few coins sticking out of the top of it... and there was a coin of Edward the Elder, I think... on top." (Andrew Whelan)

The hoard that David and Andrew Whelan had found was contained in this beautifully worked silver bowl, about the size of a small melon. Astonishingly, it contained over 600 coins, all silver, and roughly the same size as a modern pound coin, but wafer thin. They're mostly from Anglo-Saxon territory, but there are also some Viking coins produced in York, as well as exotic imports from western Europe and Central Asia. Along with the coins was jewellery: arm-rings - one gold and five silver ones. And then, there's the ingredient that makes it absolutely certain that this is not an Anglo-Saxon but a Viking hoard; there's what we call hack silver - chopped-up fragments of silver brooches and rings and thin silver bars, mostly about an inch (2.5 cm) long, that the Vikings used as currency.

The hoard pitches us into a key moment in the history of England, when an Anglo-Saxon King - Athelstan - at last defeated the Viking invaders and built the beginnings of the kingdom of England. Above all, it shows us the range of contacts enjoyed by the Vikings while they were running northern England. These Scandinavians were tremendously well connected, as the historian Michael Wood makes clear:

"There's a Viking arm-ring from Ireland, there's coins minted as far away as Samarkand and Afghanistan and Baghdad. And this gives you a sense of the reach of the age; these Viking kings and their agents and their trade routes spread across western Europe, Ireland, Scandinavia. You read Arab accounts of Viking slave dealers on the banks of the Caspian Sea; Guli the Russian - so-called because of his Russian hat, and he was Irish this guy, you know! - dealing in slaves out there on the Caspian, and those kind of trade routes; the river routes down to the Black Sea - through Novgorod and Kiev and these kind of places; you can see how in a very short time, coins minted in Samarkand, say, in 915, could end up in Yorkshire in the 920s."

The Vale of York hoard makes it clear that Viking England did indeed operate on a trans-continental scale. Here is a dirham from Samarkand, and there are other Islamic coins from central Asia. Like York, Kiev was a great Viking city, and there merchants from Iraq, Iran and Afghanistan traded their goods via Russia and the Baltic to the whole of northern Europe. In the process, the people around Kiev became very rich. An Arab merchant of the time describes them making neck-rings for their wives by melting down the gold and silver coins they'd amassed from trade:

"Round her neck she wears gold or silver rings; when a man amasses 10,000 dirhams, he makes his wife one ring; when he has 20,000 he makes two... and often a woman has many of these rings."

And, indeed, there's a fragment of one of these Russian rings in the hoard. Although Kiev and York were both Viking cities, contact between them would only very rarely have been direct. Normally the trade route would be constructed through a series of relays, with spices and silver coins and jewellery moving north, as amber and fur moved in the other direction, and at every stage there would be a profit. But this trade route also carried the dark side of the Vikings' reputation. All through eastern Europe, the Vikings captured people to sell as slaves in the great market of Kiev - which explains why in so many European languages the words for slave and Slav are to this day still so closely connected.

But this hoard also tells us a great deal of what was happening back in York. There, the Vikings were becoming Christian but, as so often, the new converts were reluctant to abandon the symbols of their old religion - the Norse gods were not entirely dead. And so, on one coin minted at York around 920, we find the sword and name of the Christian St Peter, but intriguingly the 'i' of Petri - Peter - is in the shape of a hammer, the emblem of the old Norse god, Thor. It's a coin that shows us that the new faith uses the weapons of the old.

We can be pretty certain that this treasure was buried soon after 927. In that year, the Anglo-Saxon Athelstan, King of Wessex, finally defeated the Vikings, conquered York, and received the homage of rulers from Scotland and Wales. It was the biggest political event in Britain since the departure of the Romans. And the hoard contains one of the silver coins that Athelstan issued to celebrate it. On it, he gives himself a totally new title, never used before by any ruler: 'Athelstan Rex totius Britanniae' - Athelstan, King of all Britain. The modern idea of a united Britain starts here. Here's Michael Wood again:

"The wonderful thing about the treasure is that it hones in on the very moment that England was created as a kingdom and as a state. The early tenth century is the moment when these, what we might call 'national identities', start to be used for the first time. And that's why all the later kings of the English, whether it was Normans or Plantagenets or Tudors, looked back to Athelstan as the founder of their kingdom. And in one sense you could say they go back to that moment in 927."

But it was a pretty messy moment, and the hoard demonstrates that the struggle between Viking and Anglo-Saxon wasn't yet over. The treasure certainly belonged to a rich and powerful Viking, but he must have stayed on in Yorkshire under the new regime, because some of the coins in his hoard were minted by Athelstan in York in 927. Something must then have gone wrong for our Viking, which led him to bury the hoard - but he did it so carefully that he must have intended to return. Was he killed in the ongoing skirmish between Vikings and Anglo-Saxons? Did he go back to Scandinavia, or on to Ireland? Whatever happened to the treasure-owner, most of the Vikings in England stayed on and, in due course, were assimilated. In north-east England today, places with names ending in "by" and "thorpe" - like Grimsby and Cleethorpes - are living survivals that still speak of the long Viking presence. And the Vale of York Hoard reminds us that these places were also the end - or the beginning - of a huge trade route that around 900 stretched from Scunthorpe to Samarkand.

In the next programme, we'll be on a different trade route, but one that also links the Middle East and northern Europe. We'll be in Poland, with a Christian saint and a miraculous glass... that turned water into wine.

BBC © 2014 The BBC is not responsible for the content of external sites. Read more.

This page is best viewed in an up-to-date web browser with style sheets (CSS) enabled. While you will be able to view the content of this page in your current browser, you will not be able to get the full visual experience. Please consider upgrading your browser software or enabling style sheets (CSS) if you are able to do so.