The place names of North West England are intriguing; there’s a mix of Old Danish, Norse, Anglo-Saxon and even Celtic. In these days when issues of immigration and independence regularly appear in the news, it is perhaps healthy to remember that each one of us is a hybrid. Now that we all live in a spirit of harmony as One Nation, it really is hard to imagine that any of us could ever again be remotely tribal…isn’t it?
So try to picture a time, around 900AD. Cameron’s, Milliband’s, Clegg’s and Salmond’s ancestors are all living in mud huts, or perhaps haven’t quite made it out of the pond. The roads are little more than trackways, very few buildings are constructed in stone and the countryside is more wooded than nowadays. Alfred the Great had recently beaten the Danes and succeeded in (sort of), unifying some of the English under the Kingdom of Wessex, but the north west of what is now England was an uncertain place to be in. The Celts, inhabitants of these lands since at least the Iron Age, had been assimilated by successive invaders, some retreating to the high fells, or had been forced away altogether. Their remaining territories lay to the south in what is now Wales, Cornwall and Brittany, or to the north in Strathclyde. The Anglo-Saxon Kingdom of Northumbria had given way to the Danish kingdom of York, which had major trading routes to Dublin through the region. An area west of the Pennines, corresponding roughly with the northern part of present-day Cumbria, came under the control of Strathclyde. Into this mix came Viking Norsemen, originally from modern Norway and Sweden, sailing their longships around the treacherous northern seas and arriving on the north-west coast of Britain, probably by way of Ireland, establishing power bases and settling as they went. Vikings have traditionally had a bad press. But not all invaders came to rape and pillage; many came to settle and the pragmatists amongst these different peoples must have tried to get on, to do business and inter-marry.
Even so, we can imagine that the rule of law often relied upon whoever had the strongest sword. And it was in this context at around that time that someone buried a hoard of treasure, which lay undiscovered for 1100 years and which is now known as ‘the Silverdale Hoard’. Silverdale is a small, genteel, parish on Morecambe Bay in the county of Lancashire. The finder was investigating a field with his metal detector in 2011, when he came upon a lead pouch or casket, buried at a depth of about 16” (400mm). Can you imagine what it must feel like, to make a discovery like this?! The location is appropriate, because the Silverdale Hoard consists of around 200 pieces of, mostly, silver. So it is disappointing to discover that ‘Silverdale’ actually means ‘silver coloured valley’, from the shade of grey limestone thereabouts. It is derived, apparently, from Old English (presumably Saxon) seolfor + dael – though I haven’t a clue what difference there is between Saxon dael and Norse dalr (they both mean ‘valley’).
I digress. There are arm and finger rings – the kinds of objects that were prized and worn by warriors – as well as coins, fine silver braid and small ingots and pieces of hacksilver – from which slices were cut and used for payment, in lieu of coins. The coins include Viking, Anglo-Saxon and Arabic loose change, indicating the extent of trade at the time. Some of the items are fairly crude, others are exquisite. It would be interesting to know where it all came from, which scientific analysis might reveal - but, regrettably, we are very unlikely to ever know how the hoard came to be there, or who owned it. It must have been worth a small fortune at the time – it has been valued at £110,000 today. The experts have identified it as Viking – though I don’t know whether this means Danish or Norse, because ‘Viking’ is a loose term applied to both (and can also be a verb). Clearly, someone meant to come back for it and never made it. In the 10th century, there must have been some kind of landmark nearby, like a tree or a building, used by the keeper to locate his (or her) treasure. Was it a warrior's plunder, left for safekeeping while he went off to do battle? Did it belong to a local, who spotted Viking longships in the bay and hid his belongings as a precaution? Had someone stolen it from someone else? Was it part of a gift or dowry? Perhaps someone was moving house and, not wishing to trust everything to the back of the wagon, buried his valuables. He then went to the Old Berserker’s Head in Lancaster for a few horns of ale, got beaten up by some sassy Saxons and sold into slavery.
The Silverdale Hoard is the third largest Viking silver hoard to be found in the UK to date. The largest was the Cuerdale Hoard, discovered in 1840 on the banks of the River Ribble near Preston – the Ribble Valley was an important Danish trade route not that far from Silverdale. We saw the Silverdale Hoard in the delightful Lancaster City Museum. At time of writing (2014), it is on display in Preston – one of Lancashire’s less obvious tourist magnets – at the Museum of Lancashire. More information at the Museum of Lancashire website.
|A Viking. You can cut this out and colour it in.|