Vale of York Hoard

Vale of York Hoard (Photo: British Museum)

The Vale of York Hoard was initially called the Harrowgate Hoard after the town close to where it was found, and is considered one of the most important hoards discovered in the UK so far. This is because the artefacts reflect such a huge diversity of cultural influences stretching as far afield as Afghanistan in the east, Ireland in the west, and taking in Russia, Scandinavia as well as continental Europe.

Most of the objects had been stored inside a magnificent gilt-silver vessel, which came from either northern France or Germany and dates from the mid-9th century.  This rare cup is one of only two that have been found in Britain, and among only six or seven known across the whole of Europe. It appears to have been intended for ecclesiastical use and may have been either looted from a monastery by Vikings, or given to them in tribute.

This cup with its contents was retrieved from the ground in tact, thanks to the thoughtful behaviour of its finders, metal detectorists David Whelan and his father Andrew.   Realising the archaeological significance of their find, they immediately called in the experts, resisting the urge to examine the pot’s contents further or to attempt to clean the pot itself. They also carefully recorded the exact location of the find for further investigation — which revealed no more evidence — and collected up all the small pieces of scrap metal around the find. These scraps turned out to be the remnants of the lead container which had protected the treasure in the ground.

The contents of the cup, were excavated by a conservator at the British Museum, include a fine gold arm-ring, 67 pieces of silver made up of arm-rings and hacksilver, and more than 600 coins – several of which were rare or previously unknown. The coins were a mix of pre-Christian and Christian coins and the inclusion of Islamic coins show proof of 10th-century trade links. Several previously rare coins depict the Ango-Saxon king Aethelstan (c.AD 924-939);  yet there is only once example of a relatively common coin, the Rex Totius Britanniae type, which was first minted in c.AD 928, suggesting the hoard was buried around this time — before more examples of this usually common coin could be added.

Speculation is that the hoard was buried for safekeeping by a wealthy Viking leader during a time of upheaval following the conquest in AD 927 by the Ango-Saxon king, Athelstan, of the Viking kingdom of Northumbria. This was a turning point in English history, the first time the whole country was finally united under one king – and perhaps the evidence of  such a wealthy hoard being buried for safekeeping suggests this was a period of more turbulence than the official record at the time would have us believe.