Auction Catalogue

18 July 2023

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British Iron Age Coins, Ancient Coins, and Antiquities

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№ 1739


18 July 2023

Hammer Price:

The Norfolk Viking Urnes Die

Viking, 11th century bronze ‘Pressblech’ die, 140mm long x 26-32mm wide x 7mm thick, 186g; decorated in high relief on one side with an intricate Urnes style design which could represent the world tree Yggdrasill with the monstrous serpent Nidhogg within its roots; the body of the serpent weaves around forming tendrils and interlacing with itself and the tree, with a tendril emerging in front of the head; another smaller beast appears within the tree lower down; at the pointed terminal the serpent’s tail extends out into a large fleur-de-lis; around the design is a beaded border on a raised ridge which represents the edge of the die. Very fine with a green patina which has worn slightly on the high points to reveal a reddish brown colour £16,000-£24,000

found by Jason Jones metal detecting in a field in Norfolk where previously he had found two hammered silver coins. Returning to that location Jason got a loud signal from his detector and at a depth of just 2 inches found the bronze die. Initially he had no idea what it was, but that evening after posting a picture on Facebook he realised it was Viking in date and notified the local Archaeologist to have it recorded.

There is a curve to the die suggesting the pressed foil produced was not mounted on a flat surface. The cheek guards on each side of a Viking helmet are curved in this manner and it is possible that the die was used to make ornamentation applied to the iron surface.
In Norse mythology the gigantic ash tree, Yggdrasill, formed a column linking the gods with mankind and the dead. Its prosperity was linked to the universe and the world. A variety of animals lived in the tree, including the serpent Nidhogg, a squirrel called Ratatosk who ran up and down its trunk conveying messages between the serpent and an eagle who lived in its top branches. Other serpents also gnawed at the roots of the tree causing hardship, which is why offerings were made by Vikings to protect trees beside temples.
The fleur-de-lis was a symbol of purity in antiquity and was used in the crowning of Clovis, king of the Franks, in 481 AD.
Urnes style is the final phase of Viking art dating from the mid 11th century into the early 12th century, taking its name from the carved wooden doors of the stave church at Urnes in western Norway with the slender animals displaying large almond shaped eyes, and long jaws with lappets curled back.
This church has been excavated and originally dates to the 11th century, but was rebuilt in the 12th century with the Urnes style decorated staves being placed in the new building. The staves were originally planks set directly into the ground, but because the wood rotted away, sills or stone foundations were used to protect the wood.
The iconic Sutton Hoo helmet dating from the 7th century is an earlier example of an iron helmet which was richly ornamented giving it a status befitting a king. The decorated sheets of tinned bronze were applied to the surface using dies similar to our example. This process was called ‘pressblech’ which allowed mass production using a single die. Pressing thin sheets of metal, which can be of bronze, silver or gold into the die creates a mirror image of the design which are then applied to the surface of the helmet. The decorative panels created are lightweight but with a detailed image in relief. This process is similar to the metal working technique called repousee where pressure is applied from the reverse side to create a detailed design in relief.