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Identity and Economic Change in the Viking Age: An Analysis of Ninth and Tenth Century Hoards from Scandinavia

By Danielle Trynoski

Master’s Thesis, University of York, 2010

Abstract: This project surveys a selection of hoard assemblages in order to scrutinize the changing relationship between economy and identity in Viking Age Scandinavia. A clear picture emerges of a dynamic socio-economic structure in which individuals react in a unique way, yet also follow cultural institutions. The composition of the hoards shows the chronological development of the economic structure and trends in specific item types reveal cultural responses and preferences within an economic context. Hopefully this investigation of the interaction between social and economic change will inspire further study of microeconomic systems in the Viking Age.

Introduction: “There are two prerequisites for being human: we must each learn to be self-reliant to a high degree and to belong to others, merging our identities in a bewildering variety of social relationships.” –Keith Hart, Professor of Economics and Anthropology

This thesis examines the changing nature of the relationship between exchanged items and how they represent socio-economic structures. In an economy devoid of currency, societies manifest political, social and economic relationships by incorporating gift exchange. These relationships are embodied in the items exchanged between individuals. Exchange is of a deeply personal nature and contracts are upheld by cultural institutions, not written agreements. Each party’s personal standing is a factor in establishing the meaning and value of the exchange, and the items given or received represent each party, their external relationships, and their relationship to each other. The act of exchange is an expression of social structures and represents how people within that society relate to each other.

As the idea of regulated currency is introduced and develops, the social and economic value of an individual gradually diverges. Individuals cease to factor the influence of their own worth, derived from social, political, and economic standing, on the value of items exchanged. Instead, items exchanged are valued through comparison with other items. Value is established through a ranked hierarchy: one of item X is equivalent to four of item Y and so forth. The relationship between the items exchanged and social relationships is modified by the use of coinage and impersonal exchange rather than personal exchange where items are valued according to the worth of the individuals involved. There is a gradual process in which people and commodities are separated by the developing use of currency.

These processes can be identified in the Viking Age. A shift from personal gift exchange to standardized issue, acceptance and use of coinage can be documented in the ninth and tenth centuries in Scandinavia. This represents a change in the cultural institutions of Scandinavian societies and a fundamental effect on the way people related to culturally valuable items in a world of changing cultural perceptions. Within the community of those who study the Viking Age, there is a consensus that profound cultural change occurred. There is evidence for revision or complete reworking of political, economic and social systems. Debate exists when we attempt to confirm the details of these changes. We must consider the validity of existing evidence and produce working definitions of loaded terms such as culture, society, economy and identity.

Previous studies of the Viking Age in Scandinavia have considered the changes in different spheres, often analyzing one cultural element such as the political structure. This study aims to integrate the analysis of social identity and economic change. The climax of the changing relationship between these two elements occurs in the tenth century in Scandinavia, when technological developments and expanding trade networks brought contact with new cultural systems.

This project aims to examine the shift from personal intimate exchange to impersonal and formal exchange. This shift has an ultimate effect on valuation and personal response towards artifacts in an economic sphere. In a personal exchange, there is an internal valuation process in which participants’ knowledge of each other effects the value and meaning of the objects exchanged. In a more formal exchange, objects are more likely to represent an external value. Objects indicating formal exchange include coins and weights as the most obvious examples.

Evidence of this socio-economic change can be found in Scandinavian hoards deposited during the period in question. Hoards are highly relevant evidence because they are a reflection of a personal decision making process and reflect the economic conditions at the time of deposition (Kruse 1988). Unlike grave goods, which may be included in a grave deposit by people other than the deceased individual, hoard components carry direct evidence of human handling and priorities. While reasons for deposition are debatable this project seeks to analyze the handling of the objects, not the values guiding the decision to deposit. Understandably the reasons guiding deposition may affect hoard assemblages but in the Viking Age it is generally regarded that silver and gold objects were largely used in a socio-economic context.

The diversity in hoard composition shows that Scandinavians were highly aware of and curious about other cultures. Their societies had come face to face with novel uncertainties presented by new cultural structures, and in the ninth and tenth centuries their ability to adapt was tested. Hoard deposits are the best way for modern researchers to study that ability.

Therefore, a close study of hoard assemblages and the individual artifacts can shed a new beam of light on the effect of economic change on society and identity. Over time, the role of the individual played a smaller role, as the external value of coinage and currency grew in importance. Specifically, focus on personal ornaments or fragments of ornaments will bring a greater intimacy with individual responses to objects. New understanding of cultural processes and decisions in a changing environment has ramifications not only for Viking Age studies focusing on Scandinavia, but can hopefully give new light to Scandinavian activity in a wide range of regions in this period.

Click here to read this thesis from Medievalists.net

Click here to read Appendix B from Medievalists.net

Via Medievalists.net