Sunday, September 20, 2009

Viking Treasures go on display at Yorkshire Museum

The most fabulous Viking hoard discovered in the United Kingdom in 150 years has been unveiled to the public at the Yorkshire Museum.

The treasure was discovered in 2007 in a field in North Yorkshire, and will be on show for a limited run of six weeks before the Museums closes for refurbishment on 2 November.

Andrew Morrison, curator of archaeology at the York Museums Trust, described the Viking hoard as "a wonderful, wonderful set of objects."

The most spectacular single object in the hoard is a gilt silver cup or bowl, made in what is now France or western Germany around the middle of the ninth century.

It was apparently intended for use in church services, and was probably either looted from a monastery by Vikings or given to them in tribute. Most of the smaller objects were hidden inside this vessel, which was itself protected by some form of lead container. As a result, the hoard was extremely well-preserved.

Other star objects include a rare gold arm-ring and 617 coins, including several new or rare types. Overall, the hoard contains a mixture of different precious metal objects, mostly silver, including coins, ornaments, ingots (bars) and chopped-up fragments known as hack-silver (67 objects in total and 617 coins).

"We can certainly say it's an Anglo-Scandinavian hoard because of the contents," Mr Morrison explains. 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.

These provide valuable new information about the history of England in the early tenth century, as well as Yorkshire's wider cultural contacts in the period. Interestingly, the hoard contains coins relating to Islam and to the pre-Christian religion of the Vikings as well as to Christianity.

A Viking army conquered the Anglo-Saxon kingdom of Northumbria in AD 869. The area remained under Viking control until it was conquered by Athelstan in 927. The hoard was probably buried for safety by a wealthy Viking leader during the unrest that followed the conquest of Northumbria by the Anglo-Saxon king Athelstan.

The area had another brief period of independence following Athelstan's death in 939, which lasted until the death of the Viking ruler Eric Bloodaxe in 954. The Vikings made a lasting impact in Britain, including place names, sculpture and the influence on the English language, as well as archaeological remains. Yorkshire is one of the areas which shows the strongest Viking influence in the country.

Fleur Shearman, a metals conservator at the British Museum, worked on restoring the silver cup. She said that "apart from soil encrustations and the corrosion related to the lead and a little bit related to the copper in the cup, it's in superb, really outstanding condition."

The lead casing and the encrustation have kept the silver pristine - it has emerged shining when the coatings were removed.

"Under the surface you can see all sorts of finishing and manufacturing marks - even little nicks the Vikings had made to test the quality of the silver,"

When the cup was first discovered, it was caked in mud. "It just looked grey, featureless, " said Ms. Shearman - "in fact it's highly decorated".

Beautifully engraved with animals and foliage, it also turned out to be inlaid with niello - a black metallic compound.

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.