Six New Coins of Olof


Olof Eriksson skotkonungr (c. 980-1021) is the first man of whom historical sources of adequate quality tell that he managed to get himself elected king of both the Götar and the Svear. These tribal groups had previously been organised separately, and thus Olof may fairly be seen as the first king of Sweden as we know it.

Olof’s main power base was the town of Sigtuna between Stockholm and Uppsala, founded by his father King Erik as a Christian replacement for the pagan trading post on Björkö (Biaerkey, latinicised Birca). Sigtuna was the site of Sweden’s first known mint, where English minters worked on a small scale, producing coins bearing Olof’s name but ripping off Ethelred’s designs. These coins are rare, so when six were recently found on Gotland it expanded the corpus considerably.

The new hoard is a small one for Gotland: only 54 coins all in all, tpq AD 1009, found during excavations after a home-owner in Bunge parish alerted the authorities to coins he’d found in his flowerbeds. As is common in 11th century hoards, the bulk is English and German coins.

Olof’s coins are so rare that they can’t really have functioned as legal tender. You can’t have a legal tender system if coins are so scarce that many people don’t know what they should look like. This suggests that Olof wasn’t striking coins for reasons of economic rationality. They were most likely part of propaganda efforts by this princeling on the periphery, proclaiming proudly that he was the Ethelred of the North, a real Christian king. Little did he know how posterity would value Ethelred the Unready.

Update 22 September: Here are hi-res pics of all the coins in the new hoard! The site’s Dan Carlsson’s, the tipoff came from Pierre.

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14 thoughts on “Six New Coins of Olof

  1. Isn’t that a pretty well-established theory of how coinage in general started, as propaganda efforts by kings and wanna-be-princelings. From the standpoint of economic theory Olof’s coins, even if they were minted in large quantities, would have been unlikely to be able to compete with coins from the economically superior power bases. After all, the chance that Olof would risk his (financial) reputation by blending the silver, in order to raise an army and defeat his foes, must be considered far greater than the chance that e.g. a merchant centre would do do.


  2. I thought that the first metallic trading units were even-weight bars. It seems like a coin as we know it today would 1000 BP have evoked a piece of jewelry in most minds. Is thier value then in the mint mark rather than the silver? If not, mightent there have been more of them formerly that were hacked and refounded for thier silver value?


  3. In AD 1000 most of Europe had a monetised economy with legal tender. Kings and archbishops issued regular batches of new coin types and forbade anybody to use the previous one, so everyone had to change all their money in for new coins at intervals. Us Scandies, however, were not money-savvy yet, so people here just weighed the silver and cut coins up to make “change”. A lot of the time people had nothing to buy with the silver, so they simply hoarded it under the floor of the house.


  4. There’s a lot of English coin from that period cut into halves and quarters for change as well, that’s wider than just Scandinavia. There are struck halfpennies too, and they’re tiny which is probably why we haven’t got more of them–really easy to lose or break. But we still have an awful lot more cut fragments, which suggests that that was a common means of making change in England too.

    What is unique to Scandinavia though is `pecking’ of coins, sticking it with a knife-point to test that it’s silver beyond the surface. At least that’s what we imagine the point to have been, but some coins have upwards of forty pecks (and some people actually count them!) and it must have been obvious that what was left of them was good by then surely… Also, pecks turn up on bits of a hoard from Estonia which was almost all from the same dies, so struck at the same time; they must have been not very long out of the mint, so it seems odd that they should apparently need testing multiple times already. So if anyone has any better answers to why Scandinavians liked making peck-marks on their coins… 🙂


  5. So if anyone has any better answers to why Scandinavians liked making peck-marks on their coins… 🙂

    My proposal: It is a case of “Viking see, Viking do”. Somebody on his first exposure to coins sees somebody else test it at knifepoint and takes that to be a necessary ritual whenever you receive a coin and spreads this idea to his friends and neighbours.


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