It may have been seven years since the first series of Vikings appeared on TV, but interest in the ‘raiders from the north’ is still very strong.
Viking enactment events will surely come back in force (literally) once the virus restrictions lift, and Viking jewellery and tattoos are commonly seen up and down the country. But what about if you want to collect original Viking artefacts – what exactly can you acquire, and what are the pitfalls to avoid?
What historians refer to as the Viking period dates from the late eighth century to the 11th century. Some outstanding works of art appeared during this period, particularly in jewellery and metallurgy, which are the most collectible items (unless you can somehow get a rune-covered stone down from Scandinavia). Vikings were prodigious travellers and traders – a statue of the Buddha from the Indian sub-continent was found in a Viking hoard to the west of Stockholm, for example – but indigenous Viking art reveals a recurring fascination with decorated surfaces and bright colours.
While runes are mostly understood, a lot of the symbolic meaning found on decorative objects remains shrouded in my mystery. “There is a strong likelihood that much of this ornament also carried symbolic meaning, even if we are barely able to more than guess at it today,” reflects Viking art expert James Graham-Campbell, a professor at University College London.
The Viking’s religious beliefs were well known, and most people can name at least one member of their pantheon (usually Thor), Rather than building temples, however, the Norse gods were mainly represented through amulets and other forms of jewellery, along with carvings. Amulets depicting miniature Thor hammers seemed to have been particularly popular and copies of these are widely worn today by modern Viking devotees. One of the finest examples is a silver pendant found in Skane, Sweden.
When it comes to collecting Viking art, the market is small. As Andrew Currie of Bonhams laments, “We sell Viking artefacts so very rarely.” Major finds, such as those unearthed by archaeological excavations or found by a lucky metal detector, tend to go to museums, but smaller, mainly decorative items do occasionally come up for auction. Back in 2017, Christie's sold a ninth or tenth century gold bracelet for £17,500. There are also specialist dealers online who sell Viking jewellery and smaller artefacts.
Collectors should proceed with caution, however. “There are numerous fakes reaching the marketplace these days, and also much genuine material illegally excavated and exported from the eastern Baltic area, which is inevitably lacking in provenance and should be avoided by respectable collectors,” explains Professor Graham-Campbell.
Some academics are even more adamant. "The private sale of Viking artefacts fuels illicit metal-detecting and outright theft," insists Dr Jane Kershaw of Oxford University, pointing out that last August some 400 Viking objects were stolen from Bergen Museum. "It takes important items out of the public domain and I am absolutely against it."
Given the popularity of metal detecting in the UK, however, and the long history of Viking invasion and settlement in these islands, it’s unlikely that the private sale of Viking artefacts will disappear anytime soon. Potential buyers should ensure that items are registered with the relevant national body (see below) and check the paperwork carefully. Always try to buy off a reputable dealer, or auction house, and if an eBay or other online offer seems to good to be true, it probably is.
If you are lucky enough to unearth what looks like a genuine Viking artefact, remember the rules – otherwise you could end up on the wrong side of the law. In England, Wales and Northern Ireland, all finders of gold and silver objects, and groups of coins from the same finds, over 300 years old, have a legal obligation to report such items under the Treasure Act 1996 (see here for the definition of ‘Treasure’)
Finders of potential Treasure in England and Wales should contact their regional Finds Liaison Officers for help in reporting Treasure and for further advice. By law, finds of potential Treasure must be reported to the Coroner in whose district they were found within 14 days of discovery. Full details can be found at finds.org.uk
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