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About A Week: Viking Treasure

Peter Hinchliffe reflects on Yorkshire's Viking heritage.

Two treasure hunters have discovered a Viking hoard which may be worth $2 million.

Father and son David and Andrew Whelan, using metal detectors, found a silver and gold vessel stuffed with 617 silver coins, a solid gold arm ring, brooch pins and lumps of unworked silver.

It was buried in a ploughed Yorkshire field.

This is the biggest find of Viking treasure in Britain in 150 years.

The vessel was buried more than 1,000 years near the spa town of Harrogate. Some of the coins were from distant lands – Russia, Afghanistan, central Asia, North Africa.

Scandinavians, travelling in long boats, raided and traded over vast distances in the final third of the First Millennium.

They attacked the monastery at Lindisfarne, off England’s northeast coast, in 793 AD, returning in the following decades to raid further religious establishments.

During the next two decades Vikings settled in England, controlling large swathes of the country. The notorious Erik Bloodaxe captured York. In the early 11th century a king of Denmark also declared himself king of England.

The newest coin in the Harrogate treasure vessel was made in 927 AD, during the reign of Athelston, an Anglo-Saxon who declared himself King of All Britain. Viking strongholds in the north were then under threat. The Norsemen were in retreat, which could explain why the vessel was buried and never retrieved.

The Whelans – 60-year-old father David is a semi-retired businessman and son Andrew, 35, a surveyor – found the vessel made of precious metal in January this year. Lions and deer had been incised into its metal. They took it intact to their local archaeological finds officer.

A British Museum expert “unpacked’’ the objects which had been crammed into the vessel.

Under British law a coroner has to establish the circumstances of such a find. This week the North Yorkshire corner, Geoff Fell, saying that this was one of the most exciting cases he had ever had to investigate, ruled that the find was treasure. A treasure valuation committee will decide its value, which is expected to be at least $2 million.

The Whelans will split half of any amount raised by the sale of the treasure, and the owner of the field will receive the other half. Neither father nor son seems to be excited by the huge amount of money the treasure will fetch. David Whelan was reported as saying, “We don’t need owt. We’ve got all we want. It’s a thing of dreams to find something like this.’’

(Owt is the Yorkshire dialect word for “anything’’).

Metal detectors first came onto the market in the 1970s, and there are now dozens of metal detecting clubs across Britain. A beginner’s metal detector costs around $1,000.

A Portable Antiquities Scheme was introduced in England And Wales in 2003. Finds classified as "treasure" - gold, silver and bronze hoards – now by law have to be reported to the government-funded Scheme. Metal detectorists have found around 70 percent of the 57,000-plus objects so far reported to the Scheme.

I don’t know whether any of my neighbours in the Yorkshire hill village where I live will now be buying metal detectors – but we definitely live it what was once the lands of the Vikings. The names of places near where I live confirm that they were once occupied by Scandinavians. Adlecroft, Gawthorpe, Raventhsthorpe, Thurstonland, Thurgoland – all of Viking origin.

Our village is a long-day’s horse ride from York, the city which the Vikings called Jorvik. The Jorvik Viking Centre in that city http://www.jorvik-viking-centre.co.uk/ has attracted 14 million visitors since it opened 21 years ago. It shows streets as they would have been in AD 975 when Vikings ruled.

I walk almost daily along an ancient track, Thurgory Lane, which I can see through the window of the room in which I am writing this story.

My neighbour, internationally-known professional historian Dr George Redmonds, tells me the name is of Viking origin, meaning Thurgar’s Mound, or Thurgar’s Hill. The mound in question could have been a burial mound.

Villagers, who once all spoke broad Yorkshire, know the lane as Oggeries – their version of Thurgory. Dr Redmonds was puzzled as to why Thurgory, which is singular, should in dialect have become a plural, Oggeries.

Some years ago Dr Redmonds was examining old documents in the Kenneth Spencer Library at the University of Kansas, USA. The library had acquired a chest filled with deeds which had belonged to the Kaye family, once leading land owners in Yorkshire.

He found that there were two men named Thurgar who owned land on either side of what is now Thurgory Lane - – confirming that the dialect name for the lane was correct as a plural.

I definitely will not be prompted by the Whelans’ discovery into buying a metal detector. The prospect of pacing back and forth, peering at the ground, does not appeal.

However, as I continue to stride along Thurgory Lane, I will now be wondering if I am following the footsteps of Eric Bloodaxe. Perhaps he came here to inspect the lands he conquered.

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