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Silver: commodity money for a long-distance age

Beyond the establishment (Dublin) or reinvigoration (York) of markets, the widespread presence and volume of silver bullion points to the spread to northern Norway, Ireland, and Britain of a distinctive market economy developed in southern and eastern Scandinavia during the first half of the ninth century. While it remains probable that much of the bullion represents the pre-melting stage of silver for jewellery destined for gifting, the ubiquity of hacksilver suggests that the currency aspect was central: indeed, as Gruszczyriski argues (for the Baltic), gifting alone could ‘not have been responsible for the sheer volume of silver or the un-aesthetic hacksilver’.36 Bullion of the ‘un-aesthetic’ type seen between the Baltic and the Irish Sea is, on the balance of probability, evidence of the popularity of an efficient medium of exchange in an environment with a volume of transactions that goes far beyond the scope of the gift economy.37

In many ways, silver was the perfect form of commodity money for a Viking world with vast geographical scope. It was easily transportable with a ‘relatively high value per weight unit’ and became the ‘increasingly preferred [...] medium for expressing and storing wealth, and as a universally accepted means of exchange throughout the Viking diaspora’.38 As seen below, it seems to have been developed in response to enormous influxes of silver from Central Asia.

Market currencies: the Baltic and Southern Scandinavian Model

Before discussing Scotland, it is important to outline the Baltic and southern Scandinavian prototypes for the western and northern Scandinavian bullion economies. Scandinavian involvement in the east can be discovered elsewhere.39 It is sufficient to note here that an influx of Central Asian silver to the Baltic in the form of‘dirham’ coins began in the early ninth century, and by the late ninth this had become a flood.40 The most convincing arguments on the subject of what dirhams were being exchanged for centre on slaves and furs, and perhaps Baltic amber.41 When silver glut met with the influence of Carolingian monetary economy within Baltic trading networks and the associated abstraction of thought necessary to adopt metal currency, a type of silver commodity money developed that would eventually frame the Insular Scandinavian transactional narrative for decades and - for Scotland - centuries to come.

The small metal weights used to measure this silver were myriad, but two forms, namely ‘cubo-octahedrals’ (generally copper alloy blocks which look like dice with the tips of their comers removed) and ‘oblate spheroids’ or ‘truncated spheres’ (iron-cored copper alloy or rare solid copper alloy weights looking something like squashed barrels), are intimately associated with the dirham influx of the 860s and 870s and the (very approximate) weight standards and (extremely loose) target ounce of r.24-26g.42 Both weight types would transfer to Ireland and England, with - to date - only the oblate spheroid form known in Scotland.43

Balances of an ‘eastern’ or Scando—Baltic type associated with dirham bullion are found in England, Ireland, and Scotland.44

Alongside metrological equipment, silver arm-rings eminently suited to fragmentation, but which also had an important dual role in display, were also developed. In the Danish case, these were ‘broad-band’ rings that would eventually be produced in Hiberno-Scandinavian markets, most likely Dublin.45 Broad-band rings, seemingly of both Danish and Hiberno-Scandinavian manufacture, with the latter predominating, are found in all Insular regions, including Scotland.46

The Galloway Hoard has produced several Hiberno-Scandinavian types, joining examples from the Gordon hoard (Berwickshire), the Clibberswick female burial (Unst, Shetland), and from Largo (Fife). The incomplete example from Blackerne (Kirkcudbrightshire) may be Danish. All may date from c.900, indicating Hiberno-Scandinavian involvement in Scotland at this time.47

This Danish-Dublin connection is vital when assessing Scandinavian monetary influences on Ireland and Britain. As it stands, the impression a student might receive is of northern Norwegian (rural) economic influence being stronger than that of more urban southern and Baltic Scandinavia. This is a false dichotomy: economic links between this latter region of monetary innovation, which included Kaupang in the Vestfold, and the north of Norway were more intimate and immediate than considered in Insular historiography, meaning that even northern Norwegian monetary influence on Scotland was also a mediation of the bullion economies developed by Gotlanders, Swedes, Danes, and Danish-influenced southern Norwegians.

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