How the price of Viking cows was measured in dirhams

Fragments of Arabic silver coins uncovered in Norway cast light on Viking trade

Seven fragments of Arabic silver coins dating back to the 8th century discovered in Norway
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Fragments of Arabic silver coins unearthed in a Norwegian field have cast light on the price of a cow in the Viking era.

Discovered by detectorist Pawel Bednarski, the haul included jewellery, silver wire and seven pieces of coins with Arabic script.

Their significance has now been confirmed by archeologists, who believe they would have used for trading, representing around 60 per cent of the price of a cow.

Professor Birgit Maixner of the Norwegian University of Science and Technology Museum said using silver to trade was easier than bartering.

“In the barter economy, for example, you had to have a fair number of sheep if you wanted to exchange them for a cow. Weighed silver, on the other hand, was easy to handle and transport, and you could buy the goods you wanted when it worked for you.”

8th century discovery

The trove was unearthed in December 2021, but was only recently examined by the museum.

Several of the coin fragments have been dated to the 8th century, much older than other Arabic coins found in Norway, although they may have been buried 100 years later.

In total, all the silver weighs 42 grams, worth barely Dh120 at today’s prices. In 8th and 9th century Scandinavia, however, the value would have been much higher thanks to the rarity of such pure silver from the Muslim world.

The legal code of the time known as Gulating Law offers clues as to their real value.

“A bit of figuring based on that law suggests that this treasure trove was worth about six tenths of a cow,” Prof Maixner said.

“That treasure amount was worth quite a lot in its time, especially for one individual – and also when you realise it wasn’t that long ago that medium-sized farms with five cows became common.”

Coins would not be minted in Norway for another hundred years, so their value lay simply in the silver they were made from.

Connecting worlds by water

Contact between the Middle East and Asia and Scandinavia came through rivers, with Vikings sailing their longships down the Volga and Don to trade.

In the 10th century, the traveller Ahmad Ibn Fadlan, who served the Abbasid caliphs in Baghdad, wrote of an encounter with Volga Vikings.

“I have never seen bodies as nearly perfect as theirs. As tall as palm trees, fair and reddish, they wear neither tunics nor kaftans. Every man wears a cloak with which he covers half of his body, so that one arm is uncovered.“

“They carry axes, swords, daggers and always have them to hand. They use Frankish swords with broad, ridged blades,” he noted.

Sacrifice or savings

The latest Norwegian discovery may have been buried as an offering to the gods or simply for safekeeping. The style of the jewellery unearthed is Danish, with the region where they were found was probably a trading post. Prof Maixner describes the find as “exceptional.”

Arabic coins and artefacts from 1,000 years ago have been found across Europe. Viking raids began with an attack on the English island of Lindisfarne in 793 CE and reached France and as far as Muslim Spain.

In the late 9th Century, Björn Ironside and his fleet of longships are said to have entered the Mediterranean, with Arab sources describing a Viking raid around 859 on Nakūr in present day Morocco, with the inhabitants carried off as slaves.

Further east, Vikings mostly traded with the local populations, seeking silver, the most valuable precious metal at the time.

Dirham coins from silver were largely minted in Central Asian Muslim provinces and the cities of Samarkand and Tashkent.

Hundreds of thousands found their way to Europe, and are prized today by archeologists and historians because they carry the year of minting and so allow more precise dating of sites.

By the 10th century, coins were being struck in Western Europe, largely replacing Arabic dirhams.

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Updated: January 29, 2023, 8:18 AM