|Riches found on the island of Gotland. Credit: Gabriel Hildebrand / The Royal Coin Cabinet|
Stratification did increase on the island as time passed, though. Archaeologists have found that, throughout the ninth and tenth centuries, silver hoards were distributed throughout Gotland, suggesting that wealth was more or less uniformly shared among the island’s farmers. But around 1050, this pattern shifted. “In the late eleventh century, you start to have fewer hoards overall, but, instead, there are some really massive hoards, usually found along the coast, containing many, many thousands of coins,” says Jonsson. This suggests that trading was increasingly controlled by a small number of coastal merchants.
This stratification accelerated near the end of the Viking Age, around 1140, when Gotland began to mint its own coins, becoming the first authority in the eastern Baltic region to do so. “Gotlandic coins were used on mainland Sweden and in the Baltic countries,” says Majvor Östergren, an archaeologist who has studied the island’s silver hoards. Whereas Gotlanders had valued foreign coins based on their weight alone, these coins, though hastily hammered out into an irregular shape, had a generally accepted value. More than eight million of these early Gotlandic coins are estimated to have been minted between 1140 and 1220, and more than 22,000 have been found, including 11,000 on Gotland alone.
|(Nanouschka Myrberg Burström)An example of one of the earliest silver coins minted on Gotland (obverse, left; reverse, right) dates from around 1140.|
Gotland remained a wealthy island in the medieval period that followed the Viking Age, but, says Carlsson, “Gotlanders stopped putting their silver in the ground. Instead, they built more than 90 stone churches during the twelfth and thirteenth centuries.” Although many archaeologists believe that the Gotland Vikings stashed their wealth in hoards for safekeeping,
Carlsson thinks that, just as did the churches that were built later, they served a devotional purpose. In many cases, he argues, hoards do not appear to have been buried in houses but rather atop graves, roads, or borderlands. Indeed, some were barely buried at all because, he argues, others in the community knew not to touch them. “These hoards were not meant to be taken up,
” he says, “because they were meant as a sort of sacrifice to the gods, to ensure a good harvest, good fortune, or a safer life.”
In light of the scale, sophistication, and success of the Gotland Vikings’ activities, these ritual depositions may have seemed to them a small price to pay.
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