Did vikings ‘nick’ the Newark torc?

We’ve spent a lot of time researching Iron Age torcs of the sort most famously represented by the Snettisham Great Torc and we have now been able to prove that many of these torcs were made using a previously unknown gold sheet-work technique (for more on this see here). We have also been able to show that it is likely that the Netherurd and Newark torcs were made or finished by the same maker, probably somewhere beyond the traditionally assumed East Anglian heartland (peer reviewed paper will be out soon, so watch this space….).

IMG_5732

The Newark torc (Image © Roland Williamson & Tess Machling)

After three years of looking at these torcs, we know them pretty well – but there is one thing that has continued to puzzle us. The Newark torc (which is on display at the National Civil War Centre in Newark) is to all intents and purposes an ideal example of torc making. But it does have one fault: a large gash (some 5mm by 2mm) on the interior face of one of the terminals.

Gash on Newark torc terminal (Image © Glyn Hughes, Roland Williamson & Tess Machling)

This gash has always been of concern to us. It is clearly a very deliberate mark, made with force, but which did not distort or dent the surrounding gold. It does not look like post-depositional damage and is unlikely to be accidental. But what is it? Various ideas – including a rather bloodthirsty thought of the torc wearer’s neck being cut – have come up over the years, but none was entirely satisfactory.

However, in the last few days, we have been considering a new idea which is slightly off beam but, if correct, will set the Newark torc at the centre of a story that we may never be able to tell in entirety, but which is persuasive and exciting nonetheless.

————————————————————————————

The Newark Torc was found by a detectorist in 2005 in a field just outside Newark on flat ground, close to the River Trent. Despite an excavation in the vicinity, no other Iron Age items were located. The location itself was unusual: in many cases (for example, Snettisham, Netherurd, Leekfrith etc) torcs have been found on gentle hill slopes, and have been part of hoards of usually two to four items. The topographically flat location and single nature of the find were unusual. In fact, a find of a Snettisham type torc, so far beyond the confines of East Anglia was deemed, at the time, to be suspicious enough for some to even go so far as to initially suggest it might be an antiquarian fake.

Recent work by us at the National Physical Laboratory has shown that the terminals of this torc, like the Netherurd terminal and the Snettisham Great Torc, are almost certainly made of gold sheet. However, the gash in the torc has always caused us much head scratching: how could a blow have left such a mark without denting or distorting the gold if the torc terminal was made of sheet gold? It just didn’t make sense. However, by looking closely at this mark, and comparing it with other examples, the find location, and the history of the area we believe we may have come up with a solution.

The gash on the torc is large, some 5mm by 2mm and around 1mm deep. It comprises a deliberate linear incision – the cut of which has come in at slight angle from a direction going towards the wires. It has caused a bulbous area of gold to develop on the opposing side of the cut and must have been achieved by a very thin, and very, sharp edge. The bulbous area of gold suggests that the cut was opened as the incision was made. In profile the cut is ‘v’ shaped.

Such an incision is difficult to create from a percussive blow, and neither is it correct for a sawing action. The nature of the cut suggests more that the gash was made by a very controlled action: the incision of a blade, which was then deliberately twisted or turned to open the cut to a ‘v’ and which then caused the thickening of the gold on the opposite side of the entry point of the incision. The next question is why?

In searching for information, we could find no evidence to suggest that this gash was likely to have been created in prehistory, nor could we find evidence for such practices in the Roman or Saxon periods. What did become evident is that the Vikings regularly nicked metal items and, although a far more common practice with silver, there are also examples of nicked gold work.

The practice appears to have been carried out as a test of the item’s metal purity – by opening up a nick in the metal, any evidence of gilding, or plating, could be easily seen and the texture of the metal felt. It is also possible that such a technique became a kind of hallmark of quality that could be easily examined if the item was traded. Others have suggested that the marks may have been a kind of trading mark, made each time the item changed hands, or that the nicking became a kind of ritualised action whose practical necessity was the least important element of the nicking. Indeed, there are several silver ingots that show large amounts of nicking far beyond that which would be practically needed.

By comparing the nature of nicks in known Viking examples from the links above and from, for example, items recorded by the Portable Antiquities Scheme there does seem to be a close similarity between nicked Viking examples and the gash seen on the torc. Enough to convince us that this theory was well worth exploring further.

We next looked at the known Viking activity in the vicinity of Newark, and this too provided good evidence. It is known that the Great Heathen Army passed through Newark en route to Repton, after overwintering in Torksey in 872/873.

Time for a flight of fancy…..

WARNING: What follows is an interlude of entirely unsupported speculation  – but we just could not ignore that name. Torksey. Tork-sey. Turc’s island in Old English, although the etymology is insecure. Torksey is a fascinating place: a rare raised area of land in an incredibly flat landscape, made effectively an island by the River Trent on one side and marshes on the other. The perfect place for Iron Age people to bury a torc….

Torksey is also the place from where the Viking army set off from for Repton. And on the way to Repton, following the River Trent, they would have had to pass by the spot almost exactly where the Newark torc was buried. Not such a perfect place for Iron Age people to bury a torc….

And yes, we know we’re really pushing the bounds of credibility, but did the torc come from Torksey? And even if it didn’t then an original site of deposition further north (putting the Newark torc closer to its Netherurd sibling) is a distinct possibility with the Vikings obtaining the torc somewhere along the route from the North.

But back to reality…..

With the Viking army in such close proximity to the torc’s find spot by the River Trent at Newark, and with the Newark torc’s probable northern attribution shown by its similarities to the Scottish example from Netherurd, it is possible that it could have been ‘acquired’ by the Vikings either in Newark or further North, and that it could have been deposited in Newark as a bullion cache.

This would be supported by the nick, the odd context of the find’s deposition and the presence of the Viking army in the right place at the right time. This is, we fully admit, an outlandish theory, based on not much more than an unusual torc find location and a gash that cannot be easily explained. But we have to say that we like the idea. It works. We want to explore it further. Because, after all, they did tell us these torcs certainly couldn’t be sheet gold…..!

So what do you think: An unusual Iron Age torc find or Viking plundered bling?

Please let us know!

Tess Machling & Roland Williamson, 17th May 2018.