December 12th – The silver treasure from Trondheim

September 4, 1950 was not going to be a normal day at work for those who at that time were digging the ground at Dronningens gate 10 in Trondheim. The reason for the digging was that they were going to expand the buildings of the Hovedpostkontoret (the main post office) in Trondheim. During the dig, someone came across a huge lump of soil which seemed a bit different. It quickly became clear that this was a very special discovery consisting of silver coins.

Olaf Digre doing a city walk close to the public library in Trondheim, 1965.

It was the general secretary of the Royal Norwegian Society of Sciences, Olaf Digre, who was first notified of the discovery of the silver treasure. In the period 1935-56, he was the supervisor during almost all excavations in Trondheim at they time. For some reason, it still took a little while from the coins were found until the site was fully secured. While the treasure was unguarded, someone managed to steal some of the coins. But Digre knew what to do and issued an amnesty: Those who came back with stolen coins, would avoid punishment. The collection of stolen coins was organized together with the Post Office, and quickly 96 silver coins were returned! If there were coins who never was returned, we will probably never know. But how lucky, almost one hundred coins came back!

(T16978) One of the coins found in Trondheim in 1950.

Photo: Åge Hojem, NTNU Vitenskapsmuseet, CC BY-SA 4.0

An excavation was started and the archaeologists started digging into untouched cultural layers from Trondheim’s oldest history. They also started investigating the lump of coins and dirt. About 964 silver coins were discovered together with two crucifixes complete with silver chains. The total weight of the find was approximately 1180 grams. Most of the coins were whole, but some were chopped into silver pieces (chopped silver is silver pieces used as a means of payment instead of money). It was all wrapped in a birch bark wrap, which was only partially preserved. Several of the birch bark pieces showed stains of green corrosion that have spread from the coins. Many of these were completely covered by the same green coating.

The pieces of birch bark (T16978)

Photo: Ole Bjørn Pedersen, NTNU Vitenskapsmuseet, CC BY-SA 4.0

They discovered that there were about 512 German coins and 372 Anglo-Saxon coins, as well 14 Islamic coins, some Bohemian coins, one Danish coins, 24 Irish and two Swedish coins. None of the coins was Norwegian. At the time this treasure was buried, there was no separate Norwegian coinage. The first Norwegian coin was admittedly made in Olav Tryggvason’s time (995-1000), but the 6 copies that have been found indicate that this was to a very modest extent. None of these six coins have been found in Norway. Saint Olav (1015-1030) also made a number of coins that were imitations of Anglo-Saxon coins, but it was not until Harald Hardråde (1046-1066) and Olav Kyrre (1067-1093) that a separate Norwegian coinage was established. From that time, the coin circulation in Norway changed from being dominated by foreign coins to consisting mainly of Norwegian money.

(T16978) Another coin from the treasure.

Photo: Terje Masterud Hellan, NTNU Vitenskapsmuseet, CC BY-SA 4.0

The youngest coins in the silver treasure from Trondheim was a Danish coins minted for Hardeknut (1035-1042). The treasure could therefore not have been buried before 1035. The English researcher Elina Screen believes that the treasure in Trondheim is part of the so-called ‘Danegjeld’, or the Danish debt, that the English king Æthelred II paid to the Danish king Knut 2 (1018-1035). Knut was king of Danelagen in England (today’s Essex) and he threatened King Æthelred to take the rest of the country. Æthelred paid himself free from this with large amounts of silver, so much so that England was about to go bankrupt. Knut then used this money to buy support and loyalty from Norwegian chieftains, and that is one of the reasons why he became as big and powerful as he became.

The silver treasure from Trondheim is the second largest coin treasure found in Norway after the discovery from Årstad in Rogaland. The Årstad treasure was found in 1836. 1,849 silver coins were found under a large rock on the farm Årstad by Egersund. This is the largest Norwegian coin treasure we have from the Viking Age. The youngest coin in the find indicates that the treasure was abolished around the year 1030, so around the same time as the one in Trondheim.

One of the silver crucifixes (T16978:b) found together with the coins.

Photo Ole-Aleksander Ulvik, NTNU Vitenskapsmuseet,
CC BY-SA 4.0

The two crucifixes that were found together with the coins are both considered Scandinavian. The Christ figures are made in filigree work, in the so-called Ringerik style. Experts can not say exactly where the crosses are made, tho. Two silver chains were also found along with the rest of the treasure. These most likely belonged to the crucifixes. The funny thing is that both of these have mustaches.

The other silver crucifixes (T16978:a) found together with the coins.

Photo Ole-Aleksander Ulvik, NTNU Vitenskapsmuseet,
CC BY-SA 4.0

One of the silver chains (T16978:a) that belongs to one of the crucifixes.

Photo: Ole-Aleksander Ulvik, NTNU Vitenskapsmuseet, CC BY-SA 4.0

Who owned the treasure? Who placed it there, and why? Well, we will probably never know for sure, but it was most likely put there to hide it. It was probably the plan to dig it up again, but for some reason it didn’t happened. Another thing we do know is that the 1030’s were a period marked by much unrest and uncertainty. Trondheim also looked quite different then it does today. The settlement was concentrated around a river bay, furthest east in Kongens gate. Kongsgården was probably located on a headland out in the river. The fjord also went much further in than today, and a small fjord bay stretched inwards towards the place where the treasure was once buried. Maybe the owner of the treasure came or went by boat from this bay? In any case, the owner must have had extensive contact with the rest of Europe. The coins’ different geographical origins are clear proof of this. This is a significant treasure, and it must have belonged to a person of high rank. Internationally, the treasure from Trondheim is well known. It is considered a key find in understanding the Viking Age economy. Several of the coins are divided into smaller pieces, this shows that the silver value of the coins was essential.

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