In AD 865 a Viking Great Army landed in East Anglia, and for the next decade it campaigned throughout England, moving rapidly by river and road. Unlike earlier Viking raids which had been largely hit-and-run affairs, seizing silver and slaves from exposed coastal communities, this Army over-wintered deep within enemy territory and its aims changed from grabbing portable wealth to the acquisition of territory. The Army was also larger than previous forces, such that our primary historical source, the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, describes it as the ‘Great Army’. It picked off each of the Anglo-Saxon kingdoms in turn, gaining land for settlement in Mercia, Northumbria and East Anglia, until only Wessex remained. The Chronicle also tells us where it spent each winter, but generally provides insufficient detail to allow the over-wintering sites to be identified precisely. It also gives no information about what took place in the camps, or who was housed there.
In the last decade, all that has changed, however, using an unconventional archaeological source. Metal detectorists were once regarded by many archaeologists as little more than treasure hunters, looting sites for monetary gain, much like the Vikings. However, with support from the Heritage Lottery Fund the British Museum established the Portable Antiquities Scheme (PAS), a national network of archaeological finds specialists. They encouraged the detectorists to report their finds and created a national database, which now catalogues over 1.5 million finds and has become an invaluable research resource for Viking studies. The vast majority of metal detectorists now act responsibly, seeking landowner permission amd reporting their finds (most of which have in any case been disturbed by the plough and are at risk of continued erosion and abrasion unless recovered).
It was the work of two such responsible detectorists, Yorkshire brothers Dave and Pete Stanley, that led us to one of the most important Viking sites in England – that of the over-wintering of the Viking Great Army, at Torksey, in Lincolnshire. Although the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle recorded that the Great Army spent the winter of AD 872-3 at Torksey no one knew precisely where the camp was. Today Torksey is a sleepy village alongside the River Trent, but from 6 fields north of the modern village Dave and Pete have now recovered thousands of Viking finds. To set this exceptional metal-detected assemblage in context, we have carried out an archaeological investigation, employing a variety of techniques including geophysical survey, fieldwalking, environmental analysis and excavation. Together this work has demonstrated that these fields were indeed the site
of the Viking winter camp of 872–73 and that it was enormous: c. 55 ha (136 acres), the size of some 75 football pitches. It also shows that in the 9th century the site of the camp was effectively an island, with the Trent to its west, and marshland to the east. The finds also reveal the sorts of activities that were taking place in the camp – the processing of loot, melting down previous metals robbed from churches and monasteries to create ingots, but also the manufacturing of new objects, silver arm rings with which to reward loyal warriors, as well as forged Anglo-Saxon coins. But there were also more mundane activities – iron tools for cutting and preparing timber, and nails, for the repair of ships; and over 300 lead gaming pieces for games of strategy and chance to occupy the long winter evenings.
Torksey has given us a “signature” of the Viking Great Army: (i) hackmetal including complete and fragmentary silver and gold ingots, and Islamic coins known as dirhams (generally cut into small pieces); (ii) Lead and copper-alloy weights, which also indicate the
operation of a bullion economy; (iii) Northumbrian copper-alloy coins, known as stycas, which although common at 9th-century sites in Northumbria, are a distinctive part of the Great Army signature when found outside their normal monetary circulation area; (iv) Anglo-Saxon silver pennies, also outside their primary area of circulation; (v) Anglo-Saxon and Irish dress accessories and mounts, deliberately pierced or cut for reuse; and (vi) lead gaming pieces. Combined with our understanding of the landscape setting, the signature has now led to the identification of a second large Viking camp near York, which dates to around c. 875-6, and has demonstrated that a small D-shaped enclosure at Repton in Derbyshire, once thought to be the camp of 873-4, can only be a small part of it, and the true extent of this camp is much larger, extending towards a Viking cremation cemetery 4km away in Heath Wood. It even provides clues that the Viking camp in London may lie under Westminster Abbey and the Palace of Westminster, on what was once at island in the River Thames. Furthermore, by using the PAS we have identified over 30 additional sites that were visited by members of the Viking Great Army, not as major camps, but as part of foraging expeditions, or to occupy strategic locations at river and road crossing points.
We don’t claim that all metal detectorists are heroes; there are still some villains too: such as the nighthawks who tried to hide the location of a major Viking Great Army hoard of Anglo-Saxon treasure near Leominster, Herefordshire, close to the Welsh border, and attempted to sell over 300 Anglo-Saxon coins illegally, but ended up with custodial sentences. Nonetheless, the contribution of the majority of metal-detectorists to our understanding of the Viking Great Army, and its impact, has been tremendous.