In 2011 in a field near the village of Stainton with Adgarley a metal detectorist unearthed a hidden Viking hoard of coins and hack silver. Most of the coins had been minted by the Anglo-Saxons but there were also Viking ones and even two Arabic Dirhams. The coins dated to the 940s-50s making this burial later than the ones at Silverdale (see here) and Cuerdale in Lancashire.
The discovery was found near a large glacial erratic stone, presumably used as a marker so that it could be recovered at a later date. It’s been estimated that the hoard would have been able to buy 50 sheep of the Herdwick variety (Herdwick is Norse for ‘sheep pasture’). This distinctive breed has a white face and legs, blue grey coat and can survive unattended on the mountainside in all weathers- a truly Norse sheep !
What of the coins themselves ? The bulk are from the time of King Eadred (946-55) . The others are either a little earlier (the reigns of Edward the Elder and Athelstan) and a few a little later (the reigns of Edmund and Eadwig). Analysis of the dates they were minted suggests that they were buried between 955-57. Of particular interest are the Viking coins- these show various motifs including a sword, cross, raven and a flower. The Arabic Dirhams have been dated to 906 AD and are so some of the earliest coins from the hoard.
Lead weights found with the assemblage would have been used to measure out silver and so work out its value. Silver ingots were part of the bullion and many of the items show test marks where they have been cut to check their quality.
The historical background of the time sets the scene as to what was happening when the hoard was buried. This area of Lancashire North of the Sands was part of Northumbria and at the time much of the region would have been ruled from York. England had been united as a country for the first time by King Athelstan, a Wessex Saxon and the grandson of Alfred the Great. It seems likely that the Viking Eric Bloodaxe ruled Northumbria as a sub-king to Athelstan. This arrangement seems to have come about as Athelstan had been friends with Eric’s father the king of Western Norway, Harald Finehair. Northumbria was effectively a buffer zone between the Saxons, Scots and Irish. After Athelstan’s death in 939 Northumbria was annexed by Olaf Guthrithsson, the ruler of Viking Dublin. This is a confused period, with Athelstan’s Saxon successors Eadred and Edmund also staking a claim to the region. Subsequently, Eric Bloodaxe was back in charge for two more periods but ruling in his own right and not as a sub-king. The first period was 947-8 and the second was 952-4. He was finally killed in battle at Stainmore in 954, which was just before the Furness Hoard was buried. Clearly this was a turbulent time with English Saxons, Irish based Vikings and Scottish kings all wanting to control the area.
After the discovery archaeologists revisited the site to see if there was anything more of interest. Nothing from the Viking and Anglo-Saxon times remained to be found although the nearby settlement of Stainton would have existed at that time. They were able to make out traces of three Iron Age huts and an enclosure bank around them. They also noted that in the late 1800s to earlier 1900s the antiquarian Dobson had found Neolithic and Bronze Age axes, as well as saddle querns, just a little way south from the find spot. Clearly this was a thriving area throughout the prehistoric period. Unfortunately most of the site has been destroyed by quarrying- yet another example of modern human activity from the industrial revolution onwards obliterating our ancient heritage.
Today the Furness Hoard has a permanent home at The Dock Museum at Barrow. All the coins and other artefacts are well displayed and can viewed close up. On one wall is a large picture showing the field and the glacial erratic where they were found, so the visitor can get a good impression of the site. Other finds from the Viking period are also on show. It is well worth the visit to see this impressive museum which covers the history of the area from the Prehistoric right up to Barrow in the Blitz and beyond.
The Dock Museum in Barrow is open Wednesday to Sunday 11.00-4.00 pm. Admission is free. Parking at the museum is also free.
The museum is superb and also has an excellent café.
Nearby, just a short drive away Dalton Castle
50 Find from Cumbria: Objects From the Portable Antiquities Scheme, Dot Broughton (2016), Amberley Publishing
Furness Hoard Findspot , Cumbria Archaeological Excavation, Greenlane Archaeology Ltd (for Portable Antiquities Scheme and The Dock Museum) (2012) pdf
Greenlane Archaeology Website http://www.greenlanearchaeology.co.uk/?projects=furness-hoard-find-spot-cumbria
On Site Interpretation boards from The Dock Museum, Barrow
Know Your Sheep, Jack Byard (2008), Old Pond Publishing