Viking grave goods
The scale set is formed of two bronze pans, which originally hung from a bronze arm, one pan at each end, suspended by thin chains or threads which have not survived. There are seven lead weights, six of which are topped with cut-up bronze or enamelled metalwork re-used from other objects.
The scales and weights were found in a man’s grave at Kiloran Bay on Colonsay in the Inner Hebrides. When the grave was excavated, the human skeleton lay crouched on its side, with the set of scales lying between the knees and skull. Scandinavian weapons, ornaments, and bronze mounts, possibly from a horse harness, lay nearby, and rivets and nails were also found, suggesting that a wooden boat had been placed over the burial. These grave goods indicate that the man was likely to have been a successful trader and perhaps a warrior too.
Scales for silver
At the beginning of the Viking age, silver and gold in the form of jewellery were primarily used to display personal wealth and gain status. Silver or gold gifts were exchanged to secure social and political relationships. Silver and to a lesser extent gold became the basis for the Viking economy. Coins, first Islamic coins and later Anglo-Saxon and German coins, were valued mainly as a source of the precious metal as raw material. Vikings were not interested in the denominations of coins; their value was measured by weight of metal. Many coins traded in the Viking age show the marks of being pecked with the point of a knife to test the purity of the metal.
As it was the metal that interested the trader, the weight of the silver needed to be measured in order to buy something. This meant that coins and other silver objects such as jewellery, ingots or plate might be kept whole or cut into pieces and weighed in the quantity required using scales like these. The term used to describe these cut up silver objects is hacksilver - see the Object File: Viking treasure. For high-value transactions, silver ingots were used. The largest silver ingots found weighed more than one kilogram each.
Weights bearing Arabic inscriptions for use with scales were imported from the Islamic world. Vikings in Britain began to produce their own weights too with unique decoration perhaps to prevent them from being switched during transactions. Many of the people the Vikings came into contact and traded with used coins. In the late ninth century, as they settled in Europe, the Vikings began to mint their own coins. However, scales continued to be used, as payments were still based on the weight and quality of the silver.
Although Viking traders made transactions using silver; most Vikings would not have owned scales or made payments with silver. One silver penny was a valuable item beyond the means of poorer Vikings, who are more likely to have used a system of barter with their neighbours, whereby goods with the same value were exchanged.
Viking trade networks
The scales are small and portable reminding us that their owner would have travelled to trade. Together with raiding and the need for land, trade and economic exchange were driving forces behind the Vikings’ international network. The Vikings sold goods such as wool, furs, wheat and dried fish. In addition to silver they bought materials such as silk, glass and pottery. They traded all over Europe and as far east as Central Asia, the design of their long ships enabling them to cross oceans and travel inland, up rivers.
Viking scales and weights
Catalogue information about the Viking scales and weights from National Museums Scotland.
Canmore burial site
Information about the burial in which the scales were found, including photographs of the findspot and 19th century drawings of the excavated burial.
An introduction to the Vikings as sea-raiders and traders
The British Museum Vikings tour
Contains images and short information about several Viking objects and hoards, including gold and silver jewellery.
Viking foreign trade
Article about the goods Vikings obtained from abroad through trade .
Vikings as traders
An illustrated list of items Vikings obtained through trade; and the materials Vikings exchanged them for.
Trade in the Viking period
More detailed information about Viking trade and the development of trading towns; with examples of written accounts of Viking trade.