Kaupang before the Coin

During the early Viking Age, a new settlement arose at Skiringsaal in Vestfold, just south of modern Oslo. It was a good place to be. Geologic forces had cut a route across the fjords, offering elites an opportunity to disperse among sheltered inlets while staying connected by land and sea. The trading place of Skiringsaal, now known as Kaupang after a later farmstead, stood at the heart of this region, linking it to the world.

The Gokstad ship.
The Gokstad Ship, ca. 890. This ship was excavated from a grave not far from Kaupang. Similar ships could carry people from Vestfold off on raids or between different ports of trade. Scholars now emphasize this double aspect of the Viking Age—raiding and trading—but how were these stories connected? (Viking Ship Museum, Oslo, NO.)

Tree rings from surviving wood indicate that the earliest structures were built around 803, while the minting dates from surviving coins show that things slowed down after 900, with a brief revival around 960. The beads help complete this picture. Glass imports boomed between 815 and 860, followed by the import and loss of a large number of Islamic coins between 860 and 890, and with a brief return of fancy glass and coin sometime after 900. But bead imports, overall, became sparse during the later Viking Age, both in Kaupang and in other settlements, at the same time that the silver economy was taking over the northern trade.

This picture poses a number of historical problems, such as the connection between Kaupang’s rise to prominence and the Danish royal interest in the region in 813, as well as the sudden flow of silver into Kaupang at the same time that viking activity was escalating in the West in the 860s. But as a scholar who works with beads, this chronology also poses a different set of problems. To state the question bluntly: If silver replaced beads as the dominant eastern import in the 860s, should we treat beads as we do silver, as a sort of currency for premodern trade? And if so, what does that mean about Kaupang and its place in the world?

Early Viking Age beads from Kaupang.
Some of the earliest beads from Kaupang. The black bead is a fragment of a ‘wasp’ bead, which was probably made in Scandinavia. Ribe or Sebbersund in Denmark are two likely places for production. The other two beads are long-distance imports and arrived via Russia. They were both made using a similar technique of piercing the glass—a piece of green mosaic on the left and a purple ball on the right. All three beads went out of style after 820, suggesting that Kaupang was active in regional and long-distance trade before that date. But they’re also relatively rare at Kaupang, indicating that the town’s heyday came somewhat later. (Kulturhistorisk museum, Oslo, NO.)

I think there are a few good reasons to see beads as a means of exchange that preceded silver. To explain why, I’d like to focus on two of the most common imports—segmented beads and cut beads. Both styles were made only in the Near East. The segmented beads were probably produced in the Eastern Mediterranean, and they began to travel north in the 790s, either up the Danube or through the Black Sea. The simple cut beads, however, have a later peak. They belong to the mid-800s when most long-distance imports can be traced from origins in Iran, through Russia, and out through the Baltic.

Because the segmented beads flourished earlier, it’s best to deal with them first. These beads came in many different colors, but they appeared most frequently in contrasting layers of glass that gave off the appearance of silver or gold, as well as in deep cobalt blue. These beads make up about 14% of the beads that I’ve seen from settlements (n=3852).

Beads from Kaupang.
Beads from Kaupang. Over 3000 beads have been recovered from this Viking Age town. These particular beads were excavated during rescue excavations to allow for modern construction. They form a fairly representative sample of the finds. Many of the segmented beads in this image lack a perforation but were still traded north. Most of the small blue, white, and yellow were cut from larger tubes and then reheated to round the edges. These are the most common beads from Kaupang. (Kulturhistorisk museum, Oslo, NO.)

But almost 14% of the segmented beads found in settlements—or 2% of all settlement bead finds—are considered ‘defective’. These beads lack a useable perforation because they came from the end of a glass tube that was blown and drawn, and one or both ends were left sealed. Archaeologists have been aware of this problem for years. They typically assume that segmented beads were imported in bulk, and then redistributors in Scandinavia tossed out the bad ones and sold off the good. If this were true, we should expect to find only a few ‘good’ beads in the settlements and a larger ratio on farmsteads or in graves. But segmented beads make up 14% of settlement finds against only 8% of grave finds (n=3067). So although merchants could sell the perforated beads as jewelry, they were more likely to keep them.

I admit that this might be a chronological problem. Perhaps my graves date from different periods than my settlements, which might explain the different ratios. However, we have a second test. If segmented beads were imported in bulk and then sorted for sale, we should expect the number of defect beads to get smaller at each stop they traveled into Scandinavia. But at Kaupang, which was at the far end of these routes, 18% of segmented beads are defective. This contrasts with 11% at Åhus and 4% at Hedeby, which were both intermediary towns. The surprisingly large number of ‘defects’ at Kaupang suggests that these beads retained their value as they moved from town to town during the Viking Age.

Beads from Viking-Age Norway
Beads from a ninth-century grave at Reine in Buskerud. These beads from the uplands above Kaupang show that this person was tied into the same networks supplying the town with segmented and cut beads—but they make up a much smaller portion of this collection. Many of the green beads in the middle may have been made locally—perhaps even from glass made in Kaupang or Hedeby—and the cylinder beads in the back seem to have come from a workshop at Birka in central Sweden. (Kulturhistorisk museum, Oslo, NO.)

Drawing on these observations, we can question the assumption that segmented beads were being measured by weight and traded as bulk goods. This assumption rests in part upon our knowledge of the later silver market. We have evidence that Scandinavian traders were hacking up silver coins by the 860s, measuring silver according to its weight rather than as a number of coins. Scholars suggest a logical progression—from people valuing commodities like glass for their weight, to people valuing just precious metals, to people valuing coins for the metals they represent.

In fact, the segmented beads don’t break into simple weight groups. Instead, the only thing they have in common is that their segments can easily be counted. Each segment could have been used as a unit of value, like dollars or cents. This would make a lot of sense in light of the subsequent period, when simple cut beads dominate the import market. Like segmented beads, the cut beads don’t break up into a few simple weight groups. Many were so small that they have almost no weight at all, frequently less than 0.01 g. Since the small weights of the later silver market measured about 2.0 g, it could take up to 2000 beads to register on a Viking-Age scale.

Cut glass beads from Kaupang.
Cut beads from Kaupang. This group of 52 cut beads weighs only 1.15 grams, which is less than most of the smallest Viking-Age weights. They weigh about the same as three small paperclips and less than half the weight of a US penny or a Euro cent. (Kulturhistorisk museum, Oslo, NO.)

So it seems to me that the segmented beads and the cut beads provided a way to measure value and make transactions during the early Viking Age. This basis for trade underwent a profound change in the 860s, when glass was abandoned for silver, and units of value were abandoned for weight. The flow of Islamic dirhams overtook the old trade routes used for glass, expanding all the way into England where Arabic coins have been found at viking sites.

To me, this indicates that Islamic imports should be connected to the viking activity of the West. And if silver imports were connected to viking violence, then beads might have been connected as well. So the beads of Kaupang leave us with a few lingering questions: What, if anything, could viking raiders have produced that the sellers of silver and glass and silver could have wanted? What did Islamic merchants want that viking raiders—and the middle men of Kaupang—could supply?

Silks from the Oseberg Ship, ca. 820.
Silk from the Oseberg Ship Burial, ca. 820. Silver and beads weren’t the only things imported into Scandinavia during the Viking Age. People from Vestfold also loved their silk, which they imported as finished products and perhaps also as raw materials for local textile work. These silks seem to have traveled the same routes through central Asia that carried the cut beads north. (Viking Ship Museum, Oslo, NO.)

The amount of materials excavated from Kaupang is vast. My research has been possible only through warm conversations and the generous help of many people here at the Kulturhistorisk museum in Oslo, as well as the solid foundations of previous research, much of which is available online. In particular, I’d point interested readers to: