Stycas, kings and Vikings: the copper-alloy revolution in 9th-century England

Lead Research Organisation: University of York
Department Name: Archaeology


"This PhD will shed new light on copper-alloy stycas, the most common early medieval English coins. They were minted in the 9th-century kingdom of Northumbria, replacing its silver coinage, and it is usually argued that stycas ceased being minted and used by 867, as repeated Viking attacks and civil war undermined Northumbrian royal authority. When minting resumed in Northumbria c.900 it was by Viking kings in York using silver. However, there is growing evidence to suggest stycas continued to be used, and perhaps even minted, into the late 9th century (Woods 2019). Hundreds have recently turned up in tightly-dated, metal-detected assemblages linked to the Viking 'Great Army' that raided England from the late 860s: e.g. their camps of the 870s at Torksey (Lincs) and Aldwark (Yorks). As well as using them for trade, there is now evidence the Vikings 'imitated' stycas, suggested by a) their illiterate inscriptions, mirroring other early Viking coinages in Britain; and b) the pairing of dies used by different Northumbrian kings to produce 'irregular' looking coins. This new evidence has profound implications, as stycas have long provided essential dating evidence for 9th-century northern England, but we appear to have been dating key sites far too early. Filling a perceived gap in the 9th-century archaeological record is crucial to understanding a period of immense change, as Vikings raided and conquered the Northumbrian kingdom, transforming its economy.

By examining the new evidence for official Northumbrian issues from clearly Viking contexts we can trace how long stycas continued to circulate after they were minted; e.g. the Torksey camp (dated by documentary sources to 873) contains stycas minted in the 840s. I will also seek to establish how long, and by whom, stycas were minted, by distinguishing official issues from Viking copies (with their illiterate inscriptions and irregular die linking). This will also reveal the scale on which the Vikings minted imitations, with major implications for understanding their economic activities. I will also examine other evidence for use of copper alloy as a medium of exchange by the Vikings, through finds of cu-alloy ingots and hack metal on the winter camps and in hoards, and metal-detected finds on the Portable Antiquities Scheme database. Together this will provide an important contrast to traditional emphasis on the Viking silver economy, enabling new perspectives on the scale of the base-metal economy.

The late Liz Pirie's 1996 published styca catalogue is the major resource for the many dies used to mint this innovative coinage, but is now out of date concerning their historical context, being written long before any possible Viking influence on their distribution and production was suspected. I will begin by cataloguing stycas that have emerged since 1996, largely via the advent of metal-detecting: the PAS records over 700 further specimens from across England. There are also newly recorded assemblages at Viking camps (205 from Torksey; 90 from Aldwark) and hoards at Bamburgh (125) and Whitby (130; found in the 1930s but only recently catalogued by Woods). Assemblages curated by YMT include the St Leonard's Place (York) and Bolton Percy (Yorks) hoards, comprising 3700 stycas. These have been traditionally dated to the 860s, but contain hitherto unrecognised imitations and so appear to be of rather later date, and in need of fresh examination. These two major hoards have been thoroughly catalogued and their dies matched, meaning that they provide a basis for comparison to other assemblages. I will also examine the small number of styca collections in Scandinavian museums, whose find contexts will add to the evidence for the duration, and nature, of use of stycas by the vikings. In sum, this PhD will present a reappraisal of a coinage whose analytical potential has not been fully appreciated, and provide a much-needed update on the standard reference work for the field."


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