Viking Silver Discovered on Isle of Man Compared to Cryptocurrency

More than a millennium before Satoshi Nakamoto invented bitcoin, Vikings and other ancient peoples were employing an early form of cryptocurrency to buy and sell items and services across national and cultural borders.

Even 10 centuries on, archaeologists are still making significant discoveries about ancient life in and around Scandinavia. In 2019, explorer and human remains specialist Ella Al-Shamahi determined the female owner of a badly injured skull had likely died in battle, suggesting women fought alongside men.

On Wednesday, Manx National Heritage (MNH), an agency that works to preserve the cultural heritage of the Isle of Man, released information about a treasure hoard that researchers believe to date to the time of Hiberno-Norse king Sihtric Silkbeard. Born in the 950s, Sihtric reigned over the region now known as Dublin from around 989 to 1036, according to the Royal Irish Academy (RIA). One of his most significant achievements as king was the introduction of a silver currency that bore his name and likeness, the RIA stated.

The new hoard contains many such coins as well as "13 pieces of cut, silver arm-rings" or "hack silver," and "associated artifacts," according to an MNH press release. Comparing the hoard to a wallet or piggy bank, Kristin Bornholdt-Collins, an independent researcher and numismatist based in New Hampshire, noted that its contents were diverse in terms of both age and national origin. For example, the coins had been minted in countries as far-flung as Ireland, England, Germany, and the Isle of Man itself, she said. In addition to Sihtric, "King Cnut, King Aethelred II of England, and also a Holy Roman Emperor, Otto of Saxony," are also portrayed, she said.

Both the coins and the hack-silver are expected to have "over 90 percent silver content," Bornholdt-Collins said.

"[B]ullion was especially convenient for international trade since it was practical for any size transaction and was decentralized, a currency without borders or political affiliation; in this sense, it was a modern-day equivalent to a cryptocurrency—we might even say it was something like the original bitcoin," Bornholdt-Collins said.

Discovered in April by former police officer and metal detectorist Kath Giles, who has made three other such discoveries, the hoard is the fourth to be found on the Isle of Man in the past five decades, according to the release. It may have been interred in response to a perceived threat, the release stated.

A person handles silver Viking-era coins.
A newly discovered Viking hoard of silver contains coins and 13 pieces of cut, silver arm-rings. A person handles silver Viking-era coins. LEON NEAL/AFP/Getty Images