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.


2 thoughts on “The Hedeby Harbor Purse

  1. Maggs

    That is very neat. I really enjoy your blog, and jusy wanted to say thank you for sharing your research and insights. I’m wondering, do you have any information (or can you tell me where to go looking) on the oven/kilns they used? Reading your description about them slicing the blown tube, and then re-firing the discs to smooth the edges makes me think they must have had incredible heat control, because a few degrees (or a few minutes, either way) too much, and the holes would close up because of the surface tension in the hot glass. I have experience with both fusing and flameworking with glass, and I’m just amazed by the thought of kiln polishing large batches of glass in a wood or coal fired kiln without any way to measure the temperatures.


    1. Thanks—I’m glad you’re reading it! Most of the harbor purse beads are rounded on only one end, sort of bullet shaped. I’m not exactly sure what sequence of steps would have produced this and preserved the perforation. I don’t know if the hot glass could have been cut and then tempered without sealing the bead. I suspect that the glass must instead have been cooled, cut, and then reheated. The degree of roundedness seems somewhat haphazard, and so my initial assumption (admittedly unfounded) was that the rounded edges were an accepted byproduct of the manufacturing process rather than an intentional part of its design. But as you suggest, this could equally result from the reheating process being a very time and temperature sensitive step.

      Regarding medieval kilns, I’m most familiar with the excavations from northern Europe. Two that come immediately to mind are the late-7C monastic furnace at Glastonbury Abbey published by Hugh Willmott and Kate Welham, and the late-9C ovens at Hedeby published by Andreas Kronz, Volker Hilberg, et al. But these wouldn’t have been used for working beads. Julian Henderson in his recent ‘Ancient Glass’ has a section on archaeological evidence for production sites and furnaces in the early Islamic world, which would probably be a good place to start. Unfortunately most of the published texts on Islamic glassworking neglect beads altogether. For ethnographic comparison, I’d recommend Jan Kock and Torben Sode’s ‘Glass, glass beads and glassmakers in Northern India’, if you can find it.


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