In June 2017, the Long Viking Age project hosted a stand as part of York’s Festival of Ideas, at the Science Out of the Lab tent. This year’s Festival of Ideas theme was ‘The Story of Things’ which couldn’t really have been better suited to our project.
Our stand was entitled ‘Things in the Viking Age: travel and trade’ and we had several family-friendly activities to engage festival-goers in our research. The two star attractions were the ‘Match the Mint’ and ‘Map your Connections’ activities.
Match the Mint
‘Match the Mint’ was designed to encourage members of the public to gain confidence reading coin inscriptions — but also to sympathise with archaeologists and numismatists when they come across worn or otherwise illegible inscriptions. We selected nine coins found in England that we had come across during our research, each of which is believed to have been produced outside of England between the late 8th to 11th centuries. In other words, imported coins. Using laminated images of the coins inflated to many times the coins’ actual sizes, some Velcro, and a map of Europe with mint locations highlighted, we encouraged visitors to see how many coins they could correctly match to the appropriate mint.
A number of the coins had Latin inscriptions that included the mint-name, the coin’s place of production. We provided a cheat-sheet of translations of Latin place-names to help with this part of the activity, sometimes listing several variations that might appear (e.g. MEDOLVS, METOLO, METVLLO all point to Melle). It was great to see how quickly children picked up the pattern: begin with the cross (+) before working clockwise around the coin to pick out letters. Unsurprisingly, the coins with legible inscriptions were always the first matched successfully to the mint.
Other coins provided more of a challenge. The ‘Woden/Monster’ and the ‘Porcupine’ pennies (aka ‘sceatta’) acted as good talking points to explain how numismatists and archaeologists must often rely on coin typologies and distribution maps of single finds to home in on probable places of production. A corroded imitation Louis the Pious solidus, probably produced in Frisia (though possibly England), was also a difficult one because the ‘inscription’ imitated Latin letters, but was in fact nonsensical lines.
In addition to engaging audiences with numismatic details, the activity encouraged visitors to think about how and why coins were moved overseas, and the circumstances under which they might have been lost or deposited.
Map your Connections
The Long Viking Age project is all about connections. We are ultimately less concerned with the A to B of items that travelled over a distance in the Viking and pre-Viking periods as we are with the why, how, and with whom behind these connections. However, an artefact’s origin and its place of recovery are nevertheless crucial starting points for our research. The initial phases of our project have therefore necessarily focused on the ‘A to B’ of the artefacts in our dataset. With this in mind, we designed an activity that anyone could participate in: with a focus on travel and trade in the modern world, we were able to link questions and discoveries back to our research on travel and trade the Viking Age.
We asked individuals to tell us where in the world they currently lived — point ‘B’. Then they chose one item in their pockets, in their handbag or wallet, or even an item of clothing they were wearing, and identified (or guessed) where it was made. This was point ‘A’, the item’s geographical origin. We put a yellow pin on a large map of the world at point ‘B’, where in the future, archaeologists would be most likely to find the selected item. We let visitors choose any other coloured pin to represent point ‘A’, and we tied a red thread between the two points. Over the weekend this built up a colourful map of modern connections.
The activity prompted some good discussion with visitors. Many, for example, currently lived in York but were in fact from another country — what if the item was lost while working or travelling in York? How would archaeologists interpret the identity of the individual who had last owned that item? Would they simply conclude that someone from China had relocated to York, missing out the crucial fact that the individual was in fact actually from the US? We then talked about context and whether, if other items belonging to the individual were recovered along with it, they might help to clarify the picture — or complicate it further.
Several items that visitors chose to map had been gifts from friends on vacation, or acquired by them directly during travel. But in many other cases, the item had been purchased in the UK, though it was certainly made elsewhere. How could archaeologists attempt to differentiate between direct travel and indirect trade as a means of acquisition? Of course globalisation in the modern world is many times more complex than it was over a thousand years ago, but some of the questions that this activity brought up remain relevant to our investigations into the movement of people and things in the Viking Age.
This was a fantastic opportunity to engage with bright and inquisitive families and individuals from York and beyond. Next year’s Festival of Ideas theme for York is ‘Imagining the Impossible’, which sounds like it will be just as exciting. More information on York’s Festival which will run from 5-17 June 2018 is available online, and I would strongly recommend checking out other Festivals of Ideas, such as Cambridge‘s, held in October.