A camera crew from Swedish television channel TV4 was filming a documentary on archaeological looting when, during excavations, a huge horde of Viking-era silver coins (later to be the largest found ever in Sweden) was unearthed. 

The story of the discovery is almost as precious as the horde itself.

Almedalen Week

Every year, at the end of July, one of the most important political forums takes place in the city of Visby on the Swedish island of Gotland: Almdalen Week. 

While politicians scheme, schmooze, and machinate in the delightful surroundings of the leafy green city, a huge crowd of journalists and camera crews are on the job and hard at work. 

It was one of these crews, back in 1999, from the Swedish television channel TV4, that was tasked with filming a cultural feature as part of the week's activities.

The island of Gotland seems to have been ripped off from the Swedish mainland and cast adrift eastward in the Baltic Sea. 

However, this island has proved to be a strategically important location for countless peoples and civilizations, from the Gutes to the Varangians and the burghers of the Hanseatic League to, most recently, the Swedish armed forces. 

It was no surprise then that the TV4 camera crew hoped to film a segment on the problem of archaeological looting. 

Nowhere in Sweden have so many cultures, civilizations and peoples inhabited such a small and compact area of the country, making it a rich ground for unearthing hidden treasures – both literal and figurative.

The find of a century

A team of reporters and their camera crew were led, on that fateful day in July 1999, to the farm of Björn Engström, near Slite, where a horde of 150 silver coins had recently been unearthed. 

The television crew was accompanied by archaeologist (who played local tour guide) Jonas Ström with a Professor of Numismatics (the study or collection of currency, especially coins) Kenneth Jonsson, tagging along as he happened to be holidaying on the island that very week.

After the completion of their filming, both Ström and Jonsson continued to survey the field with a metal detector. Some 20 minutes after the camera crew had left, they detected a small stash. 

Excited with their find, they spent another 3 hours scouring the field until the metal detector literally overloaded.

The team decided to do the opposite of what would normally be done in an archaeological dig. Though the site was made secure and more help was sent from the Gotland Museum, the Museum decided to go public with the announcement of, perhaps, a great find. 

Over the next few days, more than 2,000 locals visited the archaeological find, with speculation about what would be found gaining a fever pitch.

Some days later, a third cache was uncovered by the team. Only when the archaeologists tried to unearth the three caches did they realize how big a find they were dealing with, weighing in at over 87 kilograms / 191lbs.

The silver tangle from the first hoard, photographed at Gotland Museum. Photo: W.carter / Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 4.0 International

What was discovered at Spillings Farm?

Over the course of the next year, what the team uncovered was the world's largest Viking horde of treasure. 

The silver horde consisted of two parts (the two hordes originally discovered on July 16) weighing in at over 67 kilograms / 191 lbs. 

The silver deposits appeared to be in what had been sacks or chests of wood, whilst the third cache, a deposit of mainly bronze items, appeared to be in a chest and was later carbon-dated to approximately the late 7th century CE.

The silver caches contained a wealth of coins, thread, jewelry, and hacksilver; much of it weighed to specific Viking Age coinage. 

Some 14,925 coins were unearthed, of which 14,200 were Islamic silver dirhams, with the others from Persia, the Byzantine Empire, and closer afield from Hedeby. 

While the oldest coin dated to 579 CE, the latest coin was minted in 870 CE. Some 69 different minting locations, from 15 countries, were discovered in the horde. 

Without any doubt, this was the largest ever Viking silver treasure uncovered.

The third cache of bronze items was mostly broken or partially melted. Some 20 kilograms / 40 lbs of scrap metal and objects seem to have originated in the Baltic Region or possibly Russia, with only a few appearing to be made in the Nordic region.

Who buried it and why?

After more careful excavation, the Spillings hoard (as it is now commonly known) appeared to be buried under what was once the floorboards of a storehouse or a shed. 

Carbon dating of the foundations of the building has revealed that it was in use most of the "Viking Age" (c.793 - 1066), being constructed sometime in 540 CE and continuing to be of use until about 1040 CE.

There are multiple theories as to how the hordes of treasure ended up in this part of Gotland. The most popular theory relates to the strategic location of this island. 

As peoples from Viking societies pushed outward from their Scandinavia homeland, they turned the Baltic Sea into their own backyard. 

The island of Gotland provided a stopping point for voyages from the East (especially the riches of what was then the Kievan Rus and further south to the Byzantine and Islamic worlds).

The horde at Spillings was also found near what was one of the most prominent harbors utilized in the early medieval period. 

This spoke of the interconnectedness and internationalization of Viking-era trade, which bonded peoples, cultures, and civilizations from Islamic, Eurasian, and Scandinavian regions in exchange.

Whoever buried this hoard must have been a prominent trader or raider, as the Gotland Museum states that the silver uncovered in the horde was "enough to pay the entire tax of Gotland Island, to the Swedish King, for five years."

The find shows that as much as we rely nowadays on the most high-tech scientific technology, luck also plays a part in uncovering the hidden treasures of yesteryear under our feet.

Archaeology Magazine has a feature article on the Spillings hoard, available to read here.

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