Archaeology that elicits stories from coin treasures
Many people find old coins fascinating. To Nanouschka Myrberg Burström, they are also a window to our ancestors’ ways of socialising and thinking. The coins can reveal political and cultural processes, human traditions, or the fate of certain families.
The first Swedish coins were manufactured at the end of the 10th century. Over the course of a few decades, several hundred different kinds of coins were made in Sigtuna alone. At the same time, the practical benefit of having one’s own coins was rather small, and they were usually weighed when they were used anyway.
“So, there must have been other reasons to manufacture the coins. This raises a lot of questions about why it happened at that specific time and who was the driving force behind it”, says Nanouschka Myrberg Burström.
She is about to start a project about the first Swedish coins at the Department of Archaeology and Classical Studies. The idea is to study how they came to be, and how they were used, in order to see the network of different actors surrounding the coins.
“On the one hand, it appears to have been important for the leaders of the time to manifest themselves as Christians, and, on the other hand, it coincided with the emergence of the first Scandinavian cities and the transition to a writing culture.
Contemporary imitation coins
An odd aspect is that the first coins were imitations of contemporary Anglo-Saxon coins. An example brought up by Nanouschka Myrberg Burström is a leaf-thin silver coin adorned with a crucifix and King Ethelred of England. She explains that archaeology runs counter to the traditional historiography on this topic, which says that this time period was characterised by national thinking as the Scandinavian kingdoms began to emerge.
“The coins tell a different story, of a network where the elite in different kingdoms collaborated and artisans moved between the new cities. The same type of copied coins was even used in parts of present-day Poland during this time, so there is some kind of connection there that I would like to investigate.”
The interest in coins arose by chance
The project “Shared values” is funded by the Swedish Research Council, but the Bank of Sweden Tercentenary Foundation wanted to support it as well. The pleasant dilemma of having to choose a financier was still quite easy for Nanouschka Myrberg Burström, since the application to the Research Council was for a somewhat larger sum.
Her interest in coins actually arose by chance during her archaeology studies at Stockholm University. She wanted to write an essay on an aspect of Medieval archaeology, and the supervisor available in that field at the time was working with coins. This, in turn, led to a doctoral thesis on Gotland’s early coinage in the Middle Ages, and now she has conducted research on coins for more than ten years and still thinks they are an incredibly fascinating material to work with.
“To begin with, coins combine different types of sources in the form of texts and images – why was a certain type of inscription or a certain image chosen? In addition, coins move through space, and we can follow how they have spread and how they have been used in different contexts.”
The fact that coins are also financial and practical objects makes is possible to study the relationship between coins and people from several angles.
“For example, it may show how people used to think about money, what associations there were to coins as objects, and how coins have gained value outside of the economy – for example, as jewellery or to place under the threshold to bring good fortune to a new house.”
Mapping out networks
Nanouschka Myrberg Burström often returns to the topic of networks when talking about her research. As an example, she unfolds an illustration from a reference work on coinage in Sigtuna written by Brita Malmer, a former professor of numismatics at the department. It depicts hundreds of coins interwoven into intricate patterns.
“By mapping and understanding how different leaders, artisans and other actors, as well as different techniques, are connected in the coins, we can paint a picture of how society changes and what forces are in play.”
The coins can reveal more than major social changes, however. For many years, Nanouschka Myrberg Burström has been working with Viking silver treasures for a postdoc project. These treasures were often accumulated over a long period of time through the addition of small or large amounts of coins.
“Previous research has treated entire treasures as a unit, or each coin individually. But how were they acquired and accumulated, and who had access to the treasures?
Painting a picture of how the treasures were accumulated
Several hundred silver treasures have been found, many of which were found in the 19th century when new farmland was cultivated and new technology in agriculture allowed for increased plow depth, since the treasures were often buried only a few decimetres into the ground. By analysing different layers of a treasure, or by identifying darkened parts that mark the remains of fabric bags or birch bark containers that contained coins, she can paint a picture of how and why the treasure was accumulated.
“Seen in this way, they represent the life of a person or family over time, where parts of the treasure may be associated with known trade routes, bridal gifts, or similar”, explains Nanouschka Myrberg Burström, who is currently compiling the material from the project.
Another aspect is the coins’ religious connotations, which she is investigating in an interdisciplinary project led from Norway and sponsored by the Norwegian Research Council. Nanouschka Myrberg Burström will collect data on where coins and other finds are located in and around some Swedish churches, including Frösö Church in Jämtland, which was built on an ancient place of worship, and Garda Church in Gotland, which was built on the site of an old stave church.
“The idea is to paint a picture of people’s relationship with money, in connection with their beliefs and customs and how these changed in the transition from pre-Christian times to the Middle Ages.”
Text: Andreas Nilsson
November 5, 2013
Source: External Relations and Communications Office