Discovered in May 1840 by workmen repairing a bank of the river Ribble in Lancashire, the Cuerdale hoard is remarkable for both its size and contents, consisting of an estimated 42.6 kg of silver deposited in a lead-lined chest, the decayed remains of which were also discovered (Graham-Campbell, 2011). Hoards such as these were buried by the Vikings for safe-keeping, often near landmarks or rivers to allow them to be easily retrieved (Philpott and Graham-Campbell, 1990). The owner of the hoard and why it was never recovered remains a mystery. This hoard and others found near the Irish Sea illustrate the wealth of the Vikings. A dozen hoards containing coins and bullion related to Cuerdale have been found throughout Britain, but they are considerably smaller, highlighting the astounding size of the Cuerdale hoard (Sawyer, 1971).
The hoard contained approximately 7,500 coins, mainly those of the Danelaw, as well Anglo-Saxon coins and a small group of Cufic coins which had originated in Russia and Scandinavia (Lyon and Stewart, 1961). Several coins of Edward the Elder, who succeeded to the Wessex throne in AD 899, and a badly damaged fragment of a papal coin of King Louis III dating to AD 901-3 were also present. These coins have allowed the deposition of the hoard to be dated to AD 905 (Philpott and Graham-Campbell, 1990). Additionally, the hoard contained over 1,300 pieces of silver, including a small number of complete objects and 350 ingots. Ingots provided a practical means of storing large amounts silver, made by pouring molten metal into stone or clay moulds and could be easily sliced into required amounts (Philpott and Graham-Campbell, 1990). The collection of objects presents a fascinating perspective on the connections and wealth of the Viking world. It included mostly old Scandinavian silver, recently-acquired coins from the Continent, a small number of Arabic dirhams, revealing active links to Russia, Anglo-Saxon coins and Irish bullion, including over forty fragments of native Irish brooches (Hawkins, 1842-3; Graham-Campbell, 2011). Two objects in the hoard, a comb fragment and a silver strip with interlace ornament, are likely to have been obtained through Viking activity in the Orkney Islands (Graham-Campbell, 1970).
Upon its discovery, the hoard was almost immediately dispersed. Several coins were selected for Queen Victoria’s private collection, a major selection was presented to the British museum and the remaining silver was distributed by the Duchy of Lancaster, with one of the largest groups of coins obtained by Mr Cuff, a well-known individual of the Bank of England (Philpott and Graham-Campbell, 1990). Philip Nelson, a doctor and coin collector from Liverpool, began purchasing Cuerdale material from private collectors a century later, acquiring over forty pieces of bullion, although it was later shown that a few of these pieces came from other sources, such as Ireland and possibly India (Philpott and Graham-Campbell, 1990). The history of the hoard since its discovery offers a fascinating case study into the history of museums and collecting (Graham-Campbell, 2011).