Enamel-decorated lead weight, dating to about 850, one of over 200 found during archaeological excavations at the Viking site at Woodstown near Waterford City.
Before coins were used by the Vikings they traded using pieces of silver for money which was weighed using lead weights like this one. It shows a bearded human face and is unique
Viking Woodstown is Ireland’s lost Viking town - Woodstown may have been a new town in the making, but it never succeeded and at some stage in the early 900s it was abandoned.
In 914 a new band of Viking adventurers sailed up the river Suir and founded a town on the site of this tower. They named it Vedrarfjordr - winter or weather haven, the place they stayed through the winter. Over time Vedrarfjordr became Waterford and it is Ireland’s oldest city.
In the 800s and early 900s Viking traders and raiders established a number of international trading centres across Europe. Kaupang was founded in Norway with other sites at Dublin, York in England, Ribe in Denmark, Novgorod in Russia, Kiev in Ukraine and at Woodstown on the river Suir 5 kilometres up river from present-day Waterford city.
Centres such as Woodstown, which dates to around 850, had two main functions. They acted as bases for raiding and also as centres where looted goods and slaves were traded. Sites like Woodstown attracted merchants from all over the Viking world who would have come here at certain times during the year to acquire captured slaves as well as the great treasures taken from monasteries and churches in Ireland and abroad.
Before coins were widely used by the Vikings they traded using silver which was cut up into pieces and weighed using sets of lead weights. As a result of Viking trade a large amount of silver was brought into Ireland and Woodstown was a major processing centre for this. Much of this silver ended up in the hands of the Irish, who used it to make beautiful brooches and chalices.
In total thirty-eight silver pieces were found at Woodstown. Imported silver came from as far away as present-day Iraq. A fragment of a silver coin – a Dirham - minted in 742 in Wasit, a town south of present-day Baghdad was discovered by the archaeologists while carrying out excavations at Woodstown. The Vikings not only explored and raided northern Europe they also ventured south to the Mediterranean and North Africa as well as travelling east to Russia, Constantinople (modern-day Istanbul), the capital of the Byzantine Empire, and the Islamic states of the Middle East. Viking traders reached the Caspian Sea and traded goods from northern Europe such as furs and walrus tusks as well as slaves and were paid in silver Dirhams.
Sometimes Viking merchants would cut these coins up into smaller pieces and use these coin fragments for buying goods. Dirhams were stamped with quotations from the Qur'an and on the Woodstown example the following inscription can be made out, There is no God but God alone.
Viking traders also melted these coins down and shaped them either into ingots or else into bracelets which they then wore on their arms. This was known as arm-ring silver and was easy to transport and also meant that it was more difficult to steal. A merchant could safeguard his wealth in this way and it could not be stolen from him without having his arm cut off! At Woodstown the archaeologists found evidence that silver was being melted down and converted into ingots and arm-ring silver.
Silver pieces were weighed by merchants on simple scales and it was common for merchants to have their own sets of weights. Over 200 weights have been found in Woodstown, the largest number of Viking weights ever found on a Viking site anywhere in Britain or Ireland. Interestingly all the Woodstown weights weigh the same as weights used in Scandinavia and probably came from there.
The weights themselves are generally made from lead and come in all shapes and sizes. Some are very plain and functional while others are highly decorated with copper discs or pieces of crystal. The most interesting example is a lead weight decorated in enamel with a human face. This weight was undoubtedly a much-prized possession and could well have originated in one of the great commercial centres of the time such as Constantinople.
Some of the early Viking trading settlements like York in England developed into permanent cities while others such as Kaupang, Ribe and Woodstown did not.
Woodstown may have been a new town in the making, but it never succeeded. At some stage in the early 900s it was totally abandoned and for the next 1,100 years its treasures remained buried in the soil until they were discovered by archaeologists in 2003.