The Cuerdale Hoard

The Largest Viking Age Hoard in Western Europe

The Cuerdale Hoard, a huge collection of coins and silver, was discovered on 15th May, 1840, by Thomas Marsden, one of a group of labourers repairing an embankment of the River Ribble, close to Cuerdale Hall. The Duchy of Lancaster heard about this a week later, and they immediately issued instructions that the treasure hoard was claimed by the Crown. The British Museum was also interested in purchasing the hoard, and as a result, an inquest was held which ruled in favour of Queen Victoria, in right of being the Duke of Lancaster. The Duchy distributed the hoard amongst numerous individuals and organisations, numbering probably over 170. Who exactly received coins is not known with any certainty, especially as many are known to have presented parts of the hoard as unrecorded gifts, and, of course, some coins were given to, and secretly taken by, the labourers, immediately after discovery.

A hoard is a collection of valuable objects, often coins or precious metal, buried or hidden with the intention of it being recovered at some future point. Hoards were then presumably lost by forgetfulness, or circumstances causing the person who buried it to move elsewhere, or perhaps even some upheaval or tragic event. Hoards can vary in size, from a few base metal coins, to thousands of precious metal objects and coins. Often these objects were cut into smaller pieces to produce smaller currency for trade and barter, which is called 'hack silver'. Often the objects can be dated typologically, and when considered in conjunction with the known history of the period, potential scenarios and the circumstances regarding the deposition of the hoard can be postulated, making hoards one of the most fascinating but uncertain aspects of archaeology.

The Cuerdale Hoard was recognised as a Scandinavian, or 'Viking', type of hoard from the art styles of many of its contents and some distinguishing features. Viking hoards are often mixed in content, and that from Cuerdale contained ornaments, 'hack silver', ingots, and coins of precious metals, a very typical collection for a ninth- or tenth-century Viking hoard. In addition, the objects in the Cuerdale Hoard included numerous examples of a Viking practice known as pecking. The purpose of this practice was to carve a notch, nick, or groove into the silver objects to check the quality of the silver, and to ensure it was not simply a base metal object that had been plated. The Cuerdale objects show numerous examples of this practice on a single object, suggesting this was a much traded and used collection.

In addition to numerous chunks of 'hack silver', ingots, silver rings, bracelets, and ornaments, the Cuerdale Hoard contained some 7500 coins from a huge variety of sources. Most originate from a wide area, including examples from the English kingdoms, the Viking homelands, York, and all corners of the Carolingian Empire in France and the Netherlands. There are even examples, though, from as far afield as the Moslem regions of the Southern and Eastern Mediterranean, and the Hindu Kush in Afghanistan and Pakistan, and Byzantium. The best sources for dating the hoard are most probably the Anglo-Saxon coins, and those minted by the Viking kings of York, supplemented by the foreign coinage. These seem to indicate that the hoard dates to somewhere between AD 903 and 908, most recent scholarly debate favouring c 905.

The late ninth century was a period of considerable turmoil in the English kingdoms, with numerous campaigns by a great Danish army, where much of Northern and Eastern England fell under the control of Viking kings and lords, resisted most famously by Alfred the Great of Wessex. Following the death of Alfred in 899, his son Edward the Elder succeeded him, who, in the early tenth century, began, with his sister, Aethelflaed, Lady of the Mercians, slowly to unify the Anglo-Saxon kingdoms and fight back against the Vikings. Edward's son, Aethelstan, continued this resistance, and won a great victory at Brunanburh in 937, becoming king of all England. It was during the period of reunification under Edward that the Cuerdale hoard was most probably buried.

The archaeological evidence is tantalisingly scant for the period in question, though our knowledge is being added to as more discoveries are made. In the North West, burials have been found of pagan warriors and their women at Cumwhitton, Aspatria, Hesket, and Ormside in Cumbria, Repton in Derbyshire, and Claughton near Garstang, in each of which graves goods, such as swords, spears, jewellery and many other items, have been recovered. In addition to these burials, other Viking artefacts, stone sculpture, historical records, and even the place names and local words and dialects, all indicate a significant Viking presence, and settlement across the fertile land of the region. However, despite this, very little is known about where exactly they were living, and the houses they were building. Though the Danish Great Army rampaged over much of the country, and had settled many parts of Northern Britain, and the east of the England, it too is difficult to trace archaeologically. We are left with some tantalising glimpses of a fascinating period in history, but a very difficult job in trying to unravel it all.

A Memorial coin of Alfred the Great, struck after his death. The reverse contains the inscription Dudig Mon, denoting the coin was struck by Dudig the Moneyer. Often coins of a single king were issued by several mints, known to operate in different periods, and the presence in a hoard of different moneyers' marks can be very useful evidence both to date a hoard, and provide evidence for its origins and circulation.

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A Frankish coin of King Odo, often known as Eudes, who was King of France from 887-98.

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A coin of Cnut minted in York. The exact dates of their reigns are unknown, though they appear to have ruled in the late ninth and very early tenth centuries, with Siefred's reign being the earliest, though they were possibly joint rulers for a period.

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A coin of Siefred also minted in York.

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Looking towards the bank of the Ribble where the Curerdale Hoard was found.

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The stone marking the find spot of the Hoard on the bank of the River Ribble.

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A replica of the Gokstad ship, the sort of vessel used by the Vikings.

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