The medieval coin workshop found in Trondheim is the world’s best preserved. Now scientists have reconstructed the entire coin-making process.
Medieval Trondheim, early 1500s: A mint master and his apprentice have been up since the break of dawn. As the day drew to its end, they sat at a bench in the workshop, ready to strike coins.
They have already analysed the chemical composition of the silver items to be melted down and made into the coins. They have made the right coin alloy: 30 per cent silver and 70 per cent copper. They have cast rods, hammered them flat, cut them in pieces, and made the pieces round.
Then, after they were weighed, adjusted and dipped in an acid bath to make them shiny, the coins were ready for striking with the Archbishop’s own dies.
For these were Archbishop Gaute Ivarsson’s coins, which King Hans of Denmark, Norway and Sweden had given him the right to mint. The bishop was a man of great political and ecclesiastical power. He led the Norwegian Council of the Realm, and was an expert in increasing the Church’s holdings in the country.
What neither the archbishop, coin master nor apprentice could know was that in only a few years the walls and benches would be demolished and the fine tile floor would be covered with mud – while another bishop will have built a new workshop on the remnants of the old.
They also could not know that there would be a third coin workshop atop the previous two – and that more than 500 years later, the surface of the ground would lie several metres higher than their own workshop floor.
The palace in flames
Trondheim, 18 August 1983: Dense smoke rose against the morning sky. The Archbishop’s Palace – a cluster of unique buildings from the Middle Ages – was in flames! The Fire Department managed to rescue the 800-year-old stone buildings, but two storehouses from the 1700s were lost – and with them irreplaceable cultural treasures.
But nothing is so bad that some good cannot come out of it. For archaeologists, the fire was a golden opportunity to explore the medieval city of Trondheim, called Nidaros. Between 1991 and 1995 almost 5000 cubic metres of soil were turned over, and the number of finds was greater than anyone could have imagined, totalling roughly 63 000 objects.
”A unique discovery and a world-class attraction.”
Numismatist Jon Anders Risvaag
How coins were made
ANALYSIS: Chemical analysis was conducted in small bowls, called cupels, made of bone ash. A sample of material containing silver was weighed and melted together with lead in the cupel. Warm air oxidizes lead, but not silver, and at 900 °C, the molten lead oxide will remove the oxide from any other metals. Lead oxides and impurities enter the porous bone ash, so that only pure silver remains. When this is weighed, it is possible to calculate the silver content of the original object. Many cupels were found in the Archbishop’s Palace coin workshop.
THE MELT: Materials containing copper and silver were melted in crucibles in a ratio of 30 per cent silver and the remainder copper, in accordance with the law. The hearth could have been covered with charcoal, because bits of carbon have been found in the hammered rods.
CASTING: Researchers are uncertain whether the coin metal was cast in sand or stone moulds. They believe most of the casting was done in sand, since stone moulds were not found the workshop. The metal was cast as rectangular or round bars with a cross-sectional area of about 30 mm2.
FORMING: The rods were heated up and then flattened on an anvil. They were then cut into squares with a large pair of scissors. The corners were cut, and coin pieces were weighed and adjusted. They were then hammered flat before they were probably put in a stack in a kind of vice and hammered round in what were called blanks (forms). Afterwards, they were heated until they were malleable.
“WHITEWASHING”: The coin blanks were black and ugly, and were therefore “whitewashed” in a warm, acidic solution. The copper and copper oxide on the surface were thus dissolved. And when the minter hammered on the blank, pure silver was spread out over the surface in an even layer. This is the origin of the phrase “bright as a newly minted penny”.
EMBOSSING: The coin blank was put between two engraved dies and embossed with a sharp hammer blow. The top die was hand held. The bottom die was a cone-shaped piece of iron attached to an anvil on the end of a piece of wood. The top die wore out first and had to be replaced before the bottom die. A numismatist can use the differences in the times between when the top and bottom die were replaced to follow and date a series of coins for a long time.
Photo: Bruce Sampson and Linn Eikje, NTNU Museum of Natural History and Archaeology
“It was a unique discovery and is a world-class attraction, in line with the Viking ships,” says numismatist Jon Anders Risvaag. “No other country can boast such an authentic coin workshop from the Middle Ages.”
The workshop is located there still, just as it was found, and is now a part of the Archbishop’s Palace. But it is only recently that historians and metallurgists at NTNU have estimated the extent of coin production at the workshop, and documented how the Archbishop’s coins were actually minted.
“This was certainly both the world’s northernmost and smallest coin workshop. In European terms, its production was microscopic: probably only about 60 000 coins a year,” says Risvaag.
That may sound like more than just a little, but by the 1500s in Europe, coin production was essentially an industry: There were huge workshops with hundreds of employees, which spewed out millions of coins each year.
The Archbishop of Nidaros, on the other hand, was not allowed to have more than one coin master and one apprentice, the King had decided.
The estimate of 60 000 coins was based on two things: One was how many different kinds of imprints have been found stamped on different coins, and how many coins could be embossed with the top and bottom embossing dies before these would have to be replaced. Risvaag has done these calculations.
The second was based on what two men could produce in one year – if long workdays are factored in, but weekend days are not.
Metallurgists made this calculation based on how long the complicated manufacturing process necessarily had to take.
“The fun is that each of our different approaches resulted in the same estimate,” says Risvaag.
The Archbishop’s means of payment
But if 60 000 coins a year amounted to almost nothing, even in little Norway, what was the point of minting them?
“The archbishop received the bulk of his income from the renting of farmlands and tithes. But minting itself was actually profitable,” says Risvaag. “There was some income to be had from collecting old coins, which were purchased at a compulsory rate that was actually lower than the silver content in them was worth.
Moreover, most fines to the church were paid in silver, so that could be used as the raw material with which to make coins. These payments were often in the form of small pieces that could not be used for larger purposes. And last but not least, the right to actually mint coins reinforced the importance of the archbishop’s political power and rank in society.”
But the most important factor, Risvaag believes, was it was convenient for the archbishop to have a marketable form of payment when dealing with foreigners and farmers. “The right to mint coins that the archbishop had received from the king stated exactly what the silver content and weight had to be for Norwegian currency. So the Hanseatic League and the Dutch traders in Bergen knew exactly what a Norwegian hvid or penny or shilling was worth,” Risvaag said.
This theory is strengthened by the fact that there has not been a single archbishop’s coin found in the city’s medieval site from before the 1550s.
“Not one coin! The entire old town is as if it was vacuumed clean of coins, while there have been plenty of the archbishop’s coins found in churches in rural areas, and some in Denmark and Sweden. This leads me to believe that Nidaros was mainly the production site for money that was to be used elsewhere. It also appears that the workshop was used for other metal work. Perhaps the archbishop made silver bars here that he used for trade,” suggests the historian.
Celebrating a millennium
In a wardrobe at NTNU’s Department of Materials Science and Engineering, metallurgists Otto Lohne and Pål Ulseth have some unusual garments. They were made for Trondheim’s thousand-year anniversary in 1997. This was, in fact, when the two metallurgists were asked if they had anything professional to contribute to the celebration, something that could be interesting to watch.
Lohne thought immediately of coins, because he knew that Trondheim played an important role in the early production and use of coins in the realm, and he had also been involved with the chemical testing of coins from the archbishop’s workshop. He and his colleague Ulseth had done research on how the money was made (see separate article), and had no objection to wearing medieval clothes to show the public how coins were minted in the Archbishop’s Palace.
But the two researchers have only recently managed to reconstruct the whole process, from A to Z. Previously it was believed, for example, that the metal that was melted for coins was spread out on a plate and then stamped out, much like when you make flat cookies. But by using a microscope that shows the microstructure of the metal, researchers have now seen that the coins must have been cast in the form of a rod.
“We could also see that the rod could not have been cast in an iron form, but was cast either in soapstone or in sand,” explains Lohne.
The metallurgists have tested both metal pieces from the workshop and alloys they have created themselves, to figure out how the process worked. They have also tested all the production steps in their own laboratory.
One of the results of the research was that the exhibition around the old yard had to be changed. Not all of the text was accurate after the metallurgists became involved, and not all the objects were in the right place or were described correctly.
“To find the original bits and pieces and put them together into a coherent process has never been done before us. But we had the advantage of the archaeologists’ previous work,” says Lohne.
Nidaros first and last
Norway’s coin history began in 995 when King Olav Tryggvason minted the first Norwegian pennies with his name. Ever since then, the right to mint coins has belonged to the king. In 1222, the archbishops were entitled to mint coins in the king’s name, “as long as they were God and the kingdom’s friends.”
This privilege was withdrawn in 1281, after a conflict between the archbishop and the king. There was a period when the king minted coins in Oslo, but between 1387 and 1483 there were definitely no coins minted in Norway.
The archbishops were eager to regain the right to mint coins, and in 1483 an agreement between King Hans and the Norwegian Council of the Realm stated that coins could be minted in Bergen, Oslo and Nidaros, in accordance with the ancient privilege accorded to the Nidaros Cathedral.
But a review of Norwegian coins and dies that have been identified from the period suggests that coins were probably not minted in Oslo at the time, nor were many minted in Bergen. Coins that were marked Moneta Norwei were not made in Oslo, as scientists previously believed, but at the Archbishop’s Palace in Nidaros. Almost all Norwegian coins from the early 1500s until the Reformation in 1537 were struck in the three small workshops here.
The right to mint coins was, in principle, the king’s and coins were marked with his name. But the last three Archbishops of Nidaros, Gaute Ivarsson, Erik Valkendorf and Olav Engelbrektsson, also marked coins with “archbishop” and their own symbols.
“We do not quite know whether the king at any time gave his blessing to this, or whether the archbishops were so strong that they did exactly what they themselves wanted. We are fairly confident that the king was not otherwise specifically concerned with the Norwegian coins. At that time, the big production was in Denmark,” says Risvaag.
Out in the world, both historians and metallurgists are following the research about the small coin workshop in the far north with great interest. The Royal Norwegian Society for Sciences and Letters has published an English-language book about the work called The Mint in the Nidaros Archbishop´s Palace. Coin production under Archbishop Gaute Ivarsson (1475-1510).