The Hedeby Harbor Purse

It was probably in the spring. Winters were cooler then, and when the waters froze, merchants could travel by sledge or by sleigh. Those who had drifted south in the fall would travel the ice roads north with wares brought in from Byzantium or the East, even as the first few hides and antlers began to trickle down from the nomadic tribes of the tundra. At a few small places scattered across northern Europe, people gathered to participate in a world of exchange that, with the Norse camp established at L’Anse aux Meadows in the year 1000, became truly global in scope. It was a good time to have a purse full of change, and a bad time to lose one.

Artifacts from the Wikinger Museum Haithabu are currently getting packed up while the museum is renovated, offering a unique opportunity to study artifacts usually on display. This necklace of rock crystal and carnelian beads from Grave 81 (ca. 860) shows an early Viking Age appetite for Iranian or Indian imports. (Schloss Gottorf, Schleswig, DE.)

Fortunately for us, one purse did slip overboard in the bustling port of Hedeby, a harbor town located at the base of the Danish peninsula on an inlet of the Baltic Sea. The Danish kings kept a close eye on this town, with its sea routes linking in one direction through the Baltic to the Russian riverways and Central Asia, and in the opposite direction a fortified route linking to the Frankish and Frisian traders who sailed from the North Sea coast. It was probably one of these petty kings who set up the first mint at Hedeby, perhaps as early as 825. Six coins from this mint ended up in the harbor purse, along with a single coin bearing the motto “Christiana Religio” and the name of the Frankish king, Louis the Pious (r. 813–840).

This group of coins points to a purse lost sometime in the 830s, although at least one researcher has argued that, based on where the purse fell, a later date is also possible—perhaps during the course of the 900s. But the coins weren’t alone. In a compact area of 0.125 m2 (about 1 ft2), the coins were accompanied by an outstanding collection of 600 microbeads. These beads come in only four colors—white, green, blue, and black—and the beads weigh on average a mere 0.11 g (0.005 oz). Altogether, the 600 beads weigh only 68.4 g (2.4 oz)—you could find more beef in a Big Mac!

The 600 beads of the Hedeby harbor purse come in four basic colors and six or seven standard types. Such a high level of uniformity for such minuscule objects is rarely seen before the Industrial Age. (Schloss Gottorf, Schleswig, DE.)

So the coins point to an early date and a merchant with western connections. But the placement of the purse suggests a later date and raises the possibility that these coins were old heirlooms—not currency. What do the beads say?

For the sake of space (and to leave some surprises for my dissertation!), I’ll limit myself to two observations. First, the beads are remarkably uniform. Each of the four colors gathers into a narrow range of hues, suggesting a consistent use of raw materials and glass production techniques. And the sizes and weights of the beads seem to cluster, too, although the values are very small—beads in the smallest group average only 0.04 g—so I need to assess how much measurement errors might be affecting my cluster analysis. At any rate, the uniformity of these beads shows a degree of standardization rarely seen in the pre-modern world. And the stark contrast between these mass-produced beads and the individually-made handicrafts of older towns like Ribe and Åhus suggest that these beads contributed to a rising aesthetic, and perhaps even an associated ethos, that privileged simplicity and order over variety and experiment.

Approximately 600 small beads found in a purse with seven silver coins. Small change of the Viking Age? (Schloss Gottorf, Schleswig, DE.)

Second, these beads are all made with an identical technique using drawn glass. Workers heated the glass in a furnace, blew a bubble of air into the molten mass, stretched the hollow glass into a tube or a straw, cut the tube into discs, and melted the discs in an oven to smooth out the edges. Glassworkers were using furnaces in Hedeby by the 850s, apparently making their own glass from a Frankish recipe and using it mostly for tableware and perhaps windowpanes. But the technique used for making these beads should more likely be associated with the traditional glass production centers of the Near East: Egypt, Syria, and Iran. This gives us an interesting point of comparison for Ibn Fadlan’s famous statement (ca. 922) ridiculing Norse traders in Russia who would pay the outrageous price of a silver coin for a single Eastern bead—the merchant who lost his purse at Hedeby had seven silver coins and 600 imported beads. This suggests that if imported beads did have a monetary value when the purse was lost, it was of a different order of magnitude than the one which Ibn Fadlan describes: beads were little more than small change for at least one merchant in Hedeby harbor.

Similar beads from throughout the settlement show more variety in color, meaning that although production techniques were consistent, access to raw materials was in flux. Could these Viking Age beads from Hedeby be a record of 9th-century upheavals in the distant Islamic world? (Schloss Gottorf, Schleswig, DE.)

For now, that’s all I can reliably offer: new bead styles reflected changing cultural values, the appearance of highly standardized beads in the harbor purse echoes written accounts that beads were being used in monetary contexts, and this particular collection of beads and coins points to business connections that traveled both east and west. In coming weeks, I’ll examine beads from mid- and late Viking-Age cemeteries in Denmark, and I’ll keep an eye out for similar beads made from cut glass. Perhaps I’ll find some buried with a coin or jewelry that can be dated by style, and I’ll have the basis for offering my own date for the harbor purse. And our understanding of the Viking Age will move one step further.

I’m still at work in Hedeby, gathering information on beads from a variety of contexts. I’ve been focusing my efforts especially on beads which are usually found in the exhibits, since these are being packed up for temporary exhibition at the Museum Sydøstdanmark in Vordingborg, DK, while the Wikinger Museum Haithabu gets a facelift. I’m especially grateful for the staff and researchers of Schloss Gottorf, who have offered me generous help and fruitful conversations.


Treasures of the Lille Karleby Hoard

This Christmas season—and especially New Years—in Denmark were like nothing I’ve ever seen, so this post is a bit of a throwback to the week before Christmas, when I was looking at beads from a hoard from Lille Karleby, about an hour west of Copenhagen. This spectacular mix of silver, bronze, glass, and stone registered only a faint beep when Søren Bagge first ran his metal detector across it in September 2015. Bagge had found a few Arabic coins in the area, but when he nicked his finger on a silver pin lodged in a silver cup, he knew he’d found something big. He contacted the nearby museum in Roskilde, and professional archaeologists were soon on the way. They built a plaster cast around the hoard so they could pull it out complete and then excavated the artifacts in a laboratory where everything could be carefully recorded and preserved. Bagge earned a finder’s fee for reporting the hoard, but for scholars and museum-goers alike, this hoard represents an invaluable treasure of the Viking Age.

A small selection of artifacts from the recently discovered Lille Karleby hoard, currently on display at the National Museum of Denmark. Items include brooches, pendants (bottom right), silver beads (bottom left), and beads of glass and amethyst (top right). The amethyst bead might be the oldest item in this hoard, and it was probably imported to Scandinavia about 200 years before finally being buried sometime around the late 800s. Some close ups are available here. (National Museum, Copenhagen, Denmark.)

The hoard must have been a treasure for the people who buried it as well. Altogether, excavators recovered almost 400 artifacts, of which 305 were beads. Eighteen coins were included, most of which had holes in them so they could be worn as jewelry. An additional 53 artifacts are described as pendants of bronze or silver. Such an accumulation of wealth fits into the bigger picture of increasing economic prosperity and social stratification in the early middle ages. But the fact that so many of these objects were made to be worn by women testifies that male traders and raiders weren’t the only agents of change in the Viking Age.

The beads from Lille Karleby contrast strongly with other beads I’ve recently examined. These come mostly from the religious sites and central places of Uppåkra in Sweden and Sorte Muld on Bornholm. Both sites represent the old wealth of the Iron Age, with a large number of beads that can be dated to a Baltic economic boom between 400 and 600 AD. Judging from the beads and from other finds, prosperity continued at both sites until well into the 700s, with a handful of artifacts that can reliably be dated to the heart of the Viking Age. The youngest beads from these central places include some minor overlaps with the craftworking settlement at Åhus, which saw its brief peak of activity around 800 to 850.

On the left are a selection of beads found in the settlement of Åhus from the early 800s. Very few similar beads turn up at old power centers like Uppåkra and Sorte Muld, suggesting that these places were already in decline. Only one similar bead was found in the Lille Karleby hoard (right), suggesting that its owners were only starting to accumulate their wealth at the exact same time. (L: Åhus beads from the Lund University Historical Museum, Lund, Sweden. R: Lille Karleby bead from the National Museum, Copenhagen, Denmark.)

The Lille Karleby hoard shares some of the same overlaps with the settlement at Åhus that can also be seen at Uppåkra and Sorte Muld, particularly the blue segmented beads that were so popular among Baltic craftsworkers. And while the Lille Karleby hoard has some heirloom artifacts—such as a single large amethyst bead that was a popular kind of import way back in the 600s—it lacks many of the more common pre-Viking Age beads that were scattered across Uppåkra and Sorte Muld. So although the people who buried the Lille Karleby hoard showed some interest in gaudy antiques, their beads give the strong impression of being mostly made of new wealth. When the first generations of vikings started heading west, they represented a new class of elites, and these were the things they sought to acquire.

The beads themselves give us tantalizing clues about where this new wealth came from. In particular, I counted a remarkable sixteen beads of rock crystal (clear quartz) among the 192 beads that I examined. This is a much higher percentage of rock crystal than I’ve seen at earlier sites. And the quality of rock crystal is different, too. Earlier examples are large, roughly cut, and have a yellowish hue. The Lille Karleby beads are purer, finer in size, and more carefully rounded. I’m still sorting out the research on Viking Age rock crystal, but most medieval rock crystal came from quartz mines in Iran or India. The dramatically different appearance of the old and new quartz beads is certainly one indicator that their sources were changing—trade routes with the Islamic caliphate were changing in tandem with increased viking activity. The implication, then, of the Lille Karleby hoard is that viking activity helped create a new class of Scandinavian elites capable of changing global trade networks.

On the left is an early rock crystal bead that had been buried in a grave on Bornholm. Its yellowish hue comes from imperfections in the quartz, and it’s roughly cut with flat ends and a broad perforation. The bead on the right is from the Lille Karleby hoard. It’s a bit smaller, but it’s so smooth and so clear that you can see the dirt still inside the interior perforation. These differences in the quartz suggest different sources, and thus different trade routes. (L: Bead from Nørre Sandegård at Bornholms Museum, Rønne, Denmark. R: Bead from Lille Karleby at the National Museum, Copenhagen, Denmark.)

What could the owners of the Lille Karleby hoard have been trading for these beads of rock crystal and over 200 beads of Near Eastern glass? Presumably not silver, since they were importing Arabic coins as well. But the coins in the hoard represent connections both east and west, suggesting that the people who buried this hoard had connections not just to the Near East and Central Asia but also out into the North Sea.

I’m still waiting to see the analysis of when these coins were minted, but from what I’ve seen so far, the hoard was probably buried sometime around the late 800s. This was a period when viking activity began to spike and Scandinavians began to set up permanent settlements across Western Europe. If this uptick in raiding and colonialism can be connected to the Lille Karleby hoard—and I think it should be—then we need to think carefully about what viking raiders might have been trafficking east so that their partners in the Baltic could acquire glass and semi-precious stones from Asia and the distant Abbasid caliphate.

Two beads from the Lille Karleby hoard. The one on the left is common enough—a mosaic bead made from four tiles of glass (two with flowers, two with concentric circles) and capped with a red stripe on each end. The bead on the right is a bit of a mystery. The beadmaker started with a simple blue bead and then traced patterns all around it, mimicking the design of the bead on the left. Was this a rough draft, meant to advertise a beadmaker’s abilities without wasting precious mosaic glass? Or was it a commissioned fake, as the beadmaker tried to match a preexisting mosaic bead despite lacking the necessary raw materials? (National Museum, Copenhagen, Denmark.)