There is vast archeological evidence of the immense power and influence of Arab currency in Viking societies, which often formed part of hidden hoards buried across Scandinavia. 

Economic expansion of the Vikings 

Recent historical revisionists have tried to paint people from Viking societies as little more than slightly brawlish early medieval entrepreneurs

They tend to ignore or gloss over the violent aspects of their warriors, the Vikings, whose rapacious exploits saw them raid and ravage much of Europe and the surrounding areas for almost three centuries. 

Instead, they point to the trade links that Viking merchants and traders established. 

These links connected Scandinavia and Northern Europe with more advanced economies like those of the Byzantine Empire and Frankish realms, as well as myriad cultures and civilizations, from the Pyrenees to modern-day Pakistan, that made up the Islamic world. 

Whilst it is true that a great deal of the Viking expansion was due to the profit motive, it should be noted that these were no altruistic entrepreneurs. 

A large part of their economic activity was built upon human bondage – Vikings were early medieval Europe's great slave traders. 

Running concurrently with the Viking expansion outward was an expansion of Christianity inward throughout Viking societies. 

Christianity prohibited the use of or dealings with slaves. However, there were civilizations nearby, be they Byzantine or Islamic, that had an insatiable thirst for forced servitude. 

The finding of a silver ring with a Kufic inscription, possibly representing "Allah," in a grave near Birka, Sweden, highlights the extensive trade and connections between Viking settlements and the Islamic world. Photo: Gabriel Hildebrand (CC BY-SA 2.5)

Islamic societies of the East and West 

Along with natural resources – like furs, animals, timber, or amber – it was the trafficking of enslaved people that saw people from Viking societies interact with Islamic merchants and traders. 

Whilst Islamic societies were certainly not alone in the period in buying, selling, and using slaves, theirs was a world that stretched from the Pyrenees to the Punjab and, therefore, had a huge demand for human bondage. 

The Byzantine Empire, known as the new Rome and straddling the Bosphorus, the most advanced European civilization, culture, and economy in the early medieval period, was not immune to a cheap source of free labor. 

We know that Viking traders and merchants traveled eastward, utilizing the many river systems that linked the Baltic Sea to the Black Sea. 

From here, it was just a short sail to Constantinople to conduct business with the Eastern Romans or further eastward, to what is now Ukraine, Russia, Georgia, and Turkey, to trade with Islamic societies. 

Should Vikings sail westward across the North Sea to the Frankish realms, it was a short trip across the Bay of Biscay to another Islamic society, Al-Andalus. 

This was the Muslim-ruled area of the Iberian Peninsula, which, for most of this period, encompassed almost all of the territory of the modern nations of Spain and Portugal. 

In return for the goods and people that Viking traders and merchants were flogging in these markets and bazaars, they received a wealth of goods.

These included elaborate silks and jewelry, wine, olive oil, and spices (essential for the preservation of food in an era before refrigeration), as well as the most prized items of all – portable wealth in the form of coinage. 

Given the Islamic world's economic and cultural sophistication when it came to coinage, and the large amount of trade between Viking merchants and their Muslim counterparts, there was simply more currency from Islamic societies floating around early medieval Scandinavia than from any other society or culture. 

How, then, did these coins become buried deep beneath the soils of Scandinavia? 

The Spillings Hoard, uncovered in 1999 in Gotland, Sweden, is the largest Viking silver treasure found so far, featuring 14,295 coins, predominantly Islamic, with a total silver weight of 67 kg. Photo: W.carter (CC BY-SA 4.0)

Hoarding and ritual deposits 

The early medieval period was renowned for its political insecurity and violence. 

For Europe, a cultural and economic backwater compared to Islamic and Asian societies, cultures, and civilizations, life was short, nasty, and brutish. 

Even in the Viking homeland, which did not experience the same frequency of Viking raids as areas further abroad but still saw some, the line between life and death was drawn as a daily question. 

The early medieval period saw massive inflows of wealth and goods into Scandinavia, helping to underpin later medieval economic growth. 

Hoarding, literally burying valuable goods in times of trouble to dig them up later, was a way for people in Viking societies to safely preserve their wealth in times before vaults and banks. 

However, despite this rather crude method of safekeeping, many Vikings never returned to reclaim their buried treasures. 

Some of the best Viking hoards ever discovered featured a multitude of Islamic currencies, including those found on the Swedish island of Gotland

Among the 14,295 predominantly Islamic coins in the Spillings Hoard, these coins from Iraq are prominently displayed at the Gotland Museum in Visby, showcasing the vast reach of Viking trade. Photo: W.carter (CC BY-SA 4.0)

Ritual gifts, deposits, and grave goods 

Aside from hoards, there were several other reasons for Islamic coins to end up buried beneath the soils of Scandinavia. 

Part of the belief system of people in Viking societies, known as the Old Norse religion by modern historians and academics, involved rituals aimed at honoring and appeasing various Norse pantheons. 

These rituals included presenting elaborate gifts to the gods. Islamic coins, representing exotic wealth and foreign trade and highly prized, were offered as gifts to appease, seek favor, or influence the many Norse deities. 

Funerary practices also involved burying worldly goods and possessions along with the recently deceased, including wealth and treasure, like Islamic coins. 

One such burial site was near Trondheim, Norway, in the village of Skaun. 

A Viking Age grave, dated around 950, contained not only a sword and shield but also a bag full of Islamic coins. 

Could this have been a Viking trader or mercenary? Either way, the deceased traveled eastward and had some sort of contact, directly or indirectly, with the Islamic world. 

Finally, due to their exotic and valuable nature, Islamic coins may also have been buried or placed in sacred sites to help ward off evil spirits, ensure good fortune, or bless the land. 

The presence of Islamic coins in the soils of Scandinavia reflects the interconnectedness of early medieval cultures, civilizations, societies, and, yes, economies. 

The economic expansion of Viking peoples from the mid-8th to the 12th centuries saw them conduct trade and commerce with Muslim traders and merchants. 

In return for their wares, Islamic coins, like dirhams minted in the Fatimid or Abbasid Caliphates, flowed northward. 

These prized possessions were hoarded, offered to the gods, buried as part of funerary practices, or used in sacred sites for good fortune. 

Though culturally worlds apart, people from Viking and Islamic societies proved that money truly was an international language, even in the early medieval period. 

The BBC has more information on a recent Viking Age hoard featuring Islamic coins here

Should you be more interested in the economic expansion of the Vikings, there is no better place to visit than the once-great trading town of Sigtuna in Sweden. 

Nestled in the picturesque Swedish countryside, Sigtuna is sometimes seen as the birthplace of the Swedish economy and was an important market town for much of the early medieval period. 

If this piques your historical interest, then look no further than STOEX. This tourism company offers small, personalized day trips to Sigtuna from Stockholm as part of their Viking History Extended tour

On this tour, you will learn more about the history of the Vikings and wander the streets where Viking merchants and traders once plied their wares. 

This branded article was produced in collaboration with STOEX, a partner of The Viking Herald. You can find out more about their Viking and history tours - and book one - here.

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