Medieval French Coins Unearthed in Poland? A Mystery Begins

BISKUPIEC, Poland — During greater than 10 years of tramping by way of fields and forests with a metallic detector, a Polish treasure hunter has discovered the wreckage of an American-made Sherman tank, the scabbard of a French sword utilized by a soldier in Napoleon’s military, a Prussian helmet and plenty of different relics of Europe’s bloody previous.

In November, nonetheless, he made a discovery that has startled even students steeped in the ebb and movement of European warfare and left them wrestling with a tantalizing query: How did a cornfield in northeastern Poland come to carry silver cash minted greater than 1,100 years in the past and almost 1,000 miles away by the medieval rulers of what’s now France?

One principle, promoted by a Polish archaeologist main the hunt for a proof, is that the silver cash date from one among Europe’s earliest and most traumatic episodes of armed extortion — when an invading Viking military laid siege to Paris in 845, and needed to be paid off with greater than two tons of silver to stop it from destroying town.

The Vikings — Scandinavian warriors drastically feared due to their unruly habits and navy prowess — later systematized what turned an elaborate safety racket in the 11th century by imposing taxes in England generally known as Danegeld, tribute funds in return for security.

What occurred to the large ransom they obtained for sparing Paris in 845, nonetheless, has at all times been a thriller.

The Vikings had a serious buying and selling submit known as Truso simply 30 miles from Biskupiec, the Polish village the place the cash had been discovered. That has led some consultants to take a position that the silver extorted in Paris made its method there after which unfold into close by areas as a part of a flourishing Baltic-region commerce, whose essential commodity was slaves.

Some of the silver cash that had been found close to Biskupiec.Credit…Maciek Nabrdalik for The New York Times

“This is an exceedingly rare and surprising find,” mentioned Lukasz Szczepanski, the pinnacle of archaeology at a regional historical past museum in the Polish city of Ostroda. “We previously only knew what happened in Paris from written sources, but now, suddenly, we have it in a physical form.”

Others are skeptical. Simon Coupland, a British skilled, famous that the cash discovered in Biskupiec appeared up to now from a number of years earlier than the 845 siege.

But, he added, they might be a part of the booty extracted by the Vikings throughout earlier assaults on the western a part of the empire established by Charlemagne, or just the proceeds of normal buying and selling and raiding by the Vikings.

Mr. Szczepanski acknowledged that his principle that the cash had been a part of the ransom the Vikings extorted to spare Paris was merely a “working hypothesis.”

A clearer image, he mentioned, would emerge after a chemical evaluation of the cash and a full excavation of the positioning the place they had been found by the native treasure hunter, Przemyslaw Witkowski, and a fellow scavenger, Maciej Malewicz.

But, it doesn’t matter what, Mr. Szczepanski mentioned, the invention of silver cash in a Polish hamlet from so far-off and so way back was each thrilling and unsettling.

In a rustic whose personal capital, Warsaw, was occupied after which obliterated by the Nazis throughout World War II, the survival of Paris greater than a millennium earlier than because of a fee to the Vikings has a painful resonance.

Despite their repute for violence, medieval Vikings, Mr. Szczepanski mentioned, behaved much better than 20th-century Germans, whose actions throughout the struggle “are incomparable with anything in world history.”

“This is an exceedingly rare and surprising find,” mentioned Lukasz Szczepanski, the pinnacle of archaeology at a regional historical past museum in Ostroda, Poland.Credit…Maciek Nabrdalik for The New York Times

The trauma of World War II, he added, has severely hampered archaeological work in northern Poland. Much of the world was a part of Germany, and postwar Polish archaeologists, centered on uncovering and celebrating their battered nation’s personal previous, have had little curiosity in digging up reminders of German hegemony.

Tipped off by Mr. Witkowski concerning the November discover in the cornfield, Mr. Szczepanski joined forces in March with beginner treasure hunters. Using metallic detectors, they uncovered greater than 100 extra silver cash minted throughout the Carolingian Empire, which was based in the early ninth century by Emperor Charlemagne. His empire as soon as lined a lot of the territory that in the present day makes up France, Italy and Germany.

Mr. Szczepanski is now planning for a full-scale excavation of the sphere this yr, as soon as the farmer who owns the land finishes harvesting his crops. The discovery of but extra Carolingian cash, the archaeologist mentioned, would strengthen his perception that the world comprises a part of the huge horde of silver paid to the Vikings.

All however one of many cash discovered thus far date from the rule of Louis the Pious, Charlemagne’s son, with the remainder minted beneath his grandson Charles the Bald, who dominated the western a part of the Carolingian Empire and was in energy throughout the Viking siege of Paris.

This, based on Stéphane Lebecq, an emeritus professor on the University of Lille in France and a number one skilled in French medieval historical past, means that the stash had been “collected together at the beginning of Charles’s reign, so around 840-850, in the heart of his kingdom, which was situated in the Paris basin.”

Mr. Witkowski mentioned he had initially paid little consideration to his discover as a result of buried cash are sometimes simply dropped Polish zlotys.Credit…Maciek Nabrdalik for The New York Times

So far, nonetheless, archaeologists have discovered solely cash, not any of the silver ingots that just about definitely featured in the fee extorted by the Vikings from Charles the Bald. The discovery of ingots, Professor Lebecq mentioned, would strengthen the ransom principle.

The silver cash thus far uncovered, a lot of them intact however others smashed — apparently by the farmer’s plow — have been despatched to Warsaw to be analyzed by consultants at an archaeology laboratory run by the Polish Academy of Sciences.

Mateusz Bogucki, the pinnacle of the laboratory, mentioned he was skeptical concerning the Paris ransom fee principle however mentioned the cash had been nonetheless a really vital discover, indicating the attain of the Carolingian Empire far past its heartland in Western Europe.

The cash, he mentioned, have little monetary worth and would most certainly fetch beneath $200 every on the open market, “but their value as a source of information is absolutely amazing.”

Particularly vital, Mr. Bogucki mentioned, is the sunshine they shed on medieval commerce routes, a lot of which revolved across the shopping for and promoting of native individuals who had been captured in battle and bought or compelled into bondage by slave retailers.

The Vikings performed a serious function as intermediaries in a brutal enterprise fed by a voracious urge for food for slaves from Europe amongst rich Muslims in the Middle East and later Central Asia. Silver cash discovered beforehand in the world have principally been Arab dirhams, utilized by Muslim retailers to pay for human chattel.

Mr. Witkowski, the treasure hunter, mentioned he had initially paid little consideration to his discover as a result of buried cash are sometimes simply an annoyance — often dropped Polish zlotys.

“I generally don’t like coins,” he mentioned.

The authorities have sealed off the positioning close to Biskupiec and declared its precise location a state secret.Credit…Maciek Nabrdalik for The New York Times

But, after washing his discover at dwelling and realizing it was not simply abnormal pocket change, he despatched images to Mr. Szczepanski on the historical past museum in Ostroda. The archaeologist rapidly known as again and “was so excited I could not understand what he was saying,” Mr. Witkowski recalled.

“I realized that I had found something important,” he added.

Fearful that unscrupulous treasure hunters will begin trying to find and stealing the silver cash, the authorities have now sealed off the positioning close to Biskupiec and declared its precise location a state secret.

At the identical time, they just lately rejected Mr. Witkowski’s software for a search allow, complaining that maps he submitted detailing the areas he and his associates wish to search had been in the improper format.

“There would be a lot more stuff in our museums if they did not make everything so complicated,” Mr. Witkowski mentioned. Except for the archaeologist on the historical past museum, he added, “nobody has even said thank you for finding these coins.”