Page last updated at 02:23 GMT, Thursday, 17 September 2009 03:23 UK

The 'wonderful, wonderful' hoard

By Trevor Timpson
BBC News

Andrew Morrison holds the silver-gilt cup in which the hoard was packed.
Andrew Morrison prepares the hoard for display at the Yorkshire Museum.

"A wonderful, wonderful set of objects" was how Andrew Morrison, curator of archaeology at the York Museums Trust, described a Viking hoard as he started to lay out its display at the city's Yorkshire Museum.

The Vale of York Hoard, dug out of a muddy field near Harrogate in 2007, has returned to Yorkshire - the finest haul of Viking silver discovered since 1840.

It delighted conservators at the British Museum by its quality. It came out shining when the soil and corrosion were removed.

Also remarkable, Mr Morrison says, is the exactness with which the hoard can be dated.

Of the 617 silver coins it contained - ranging from as far afield as the Middle East and central Asia - just one is the key to dating the burying of the treasure.

Key date

It is a coin of Athelstan, the grandson of Alfred the Great, who in 927 AD added Northumbria, including York, to his realms of Wessex and Mercia, ousting its Viking rulers, and became, in the view of many historians, the first King of all England.

Coin from the Vale of York Hoard. Picture: British Museum Trustees
The coin which calls Athelstan REX TO[tius] BRI[tannia]E - King of all Britain (about 2cm across)

The coin describes Athelstan as REX TO[tius] BRI[tannia]E - King of all Britain. "He minted that after a council of northern Kings that he held in 927," says Mr Morrison. And the fact that there is only one such coin clinches the date as soon after that, he adds.

"There's only one - it's fresh - so the likelihood is that it was put in the ground when that coin was first issued. In a couple more years, because those coins were in general circulation, you'd expect more of them to be in the mix."

It was also a time of political upheaval, making it more likely that the owner of the hoard would want to hide it. Presumably, the intention was to unearth the treasure when things settled down.

In fact, they got worse. Athelstan was forced to fight a huge and bloody battle in 937 against the kings of Scotland and Strathclyde and their Viking allies. And the hoard stayed where it was for another 1,070 years.

Hack silver

How do we know it was a Viking hoard?

"We can certainly say it's an Anglo-Scandinavian hoard because of the contents," Mr Morrison insists. Among the coins are dirhams from Muslim states as far away as central Asia and Afghanistan.

"What they're showing you is trading links. That tends to be very much more the Viking side of life than the Anglo-Saxon side of life," says Mr Morrison. The Scandinavian seagoing peoples travelled and traded far and wide.

Gold arm ring from the Vale of York Hoard
One gold arm ring stands out among all the silver in the hoard

The presence of "hack silver" - items such as jewellery cut into pieces for their silver value - is also "what you expect from an Anglo-Scandinavian economy," he adds. The Anglo-Saxons tended to use coins rather than bullion.

The hoard will be on show in York from 17 September until 1 November.

It will return to the British Museum while the Yorkshire Museum closes for refurbishment until August 2010. It will then return to York for "a period of time" - by which time the whole hoard, including all 617 coins, should be ready to go on display.

For Mr Morrison this co-operation between regional and national museums is "the way forward - you get the best of everything: the local input into ways of doing things, with the national expertise".

The hoard, for him, has a personal feel - it gives clues about whoever it was who hid it. The single gold arm ring among the mass of silver items could well have been of great sentimental value to its owner, he believes. Possibly it was a reward for services given by a superior ruler.

In sum, he says: "This is the lifetime's treasure of a reasonably wealthy individual."

It also helps us to remember what a wealthy and prestigious place Northumbria, centred on York, was, he observes - sometimes in the richness of archaeological finds in the city and its surroundings "we forget how it is a place with the seeds of power and glory."

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