Sat, Jul 21, 2007 - Page 16 News List

Viking loot sees the light of day after 1,000 years

Pot buried in an English field sheds new light on Norsemen, as treasure goes on show at British Museum

By Maev Kennedy  /  THE GUARDIAN , LONDON

A ninth century gilt silver vessel discovered by a father-son team of treasure hunters in northern England. More than 600 coins and 65 other items were found.

PHOTO: AP

A Viking treasure hoard of silver and gold, traded and looted from across Europe and as far afield as Asia and north Africa, and lost for more than 1,000 years, was revealed to public view again Thursday at the British Museum.

The find is one of the most spectacular recent discoveries from anywhere in the Viking empire: 600 coins, some unique, from as far as Samarkand in central Asia, Afghanistan, Russia and north Africa, hidden in a silver and gold pot.

"This is the world in a vessel," said Jonathan Williams, of the British Museum.

The hoard was found in January near Harrogate, Yorkshire, by David and Andrew Whelan, father and son hobby metal detector enthusiasts. It was in a bare field due to be ploughed for spring sowing. They first found fragments of the lead sheeting which once protected it, then the pot itself. They could see coins and scraps of silver poking out, but heroically restrained themselves and brought the whole thing intact to their local archaeological finds officer.

The site seems then as now to have been an empty field: archaeologists scoured it for evidence, but found no trace of any settlement or structure.

The Whelans' patience - which helped preserve priceless clues as to how and when the hoard was hidden - was rewarded when the British Museum invited them to watch while conservator Hayley Bullock delicately tweezered the treasure out of the hard-packed ground. An X-ray had revealed only what she called "a lot of stuff."

Gradually the contents of the bowl spread out along the archaeologists' bench: a gold arm ring possibly made in Ireland, silver rings and brooches, dress ornaments, ingots, the chopped up scraps of silver which the Vikings used by weight as cash, and coins, many in superb condition, by the score. "If somebody asked me to fit it all back in now, I'm not sure I could," Bullock said yesterday.

The find goes some way to revive the more traditional image of the Vikings as fearsome raiders, after their recent rehabilitation as farmers, sailors and amiable trading folk in their kingdom of York and Northumbria.

The treasure was crammed into an exquisite silver pot, decorated with incised lions and deer, plated inside with pure gold because it once held the communion bread for some wealthy church in northern France.

Barry Ager, a British Museum expert on the Vikings in northern Europe, said it could have been looted, or given in unwilling tribute to persuade the raiders to go and loot somewhere else. A very similar one, possibly made by the same craftsman, was found in Lancashire more than a century ago. It arrived in Britain by equally dubious means.

The archaeologists believe the collection was probably assembled in England, as the contents are typical of other found hoards - though more spectacular.

It demonstrates the extraordinary geographical spread of precious metal being used as currency in Yorkshire, centuries after the fall of the Roman Empire. The Vikings could go anywhere that their long, narrow, shallow-keeled boats would carry them. They fought as mercenaries in armies across Europe and down into north Africa, including the siege of Constantinople, and crossed the steppes into Asia.

The valuables they collected, by whatever means, were bought, sold and traded all the way back along their sea lanes, to Viking cities such as Dublin, Liverpool and York.

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