DIRHAMS FOR SLAVES

Hundreds of thousands of dirhams, Islamic silver coins, have been found in hoards across Northern Europe. Travelling thousands of miles from their original mints, the coins represent an unprecedented flow of silver. These hoards have long been recognised as the residues of a vast trading network. The purpose and the nature of the trade however, until this project, had remained largely uninvestigated. Dirhams for Slaves is a project which has explored the possibility that, rather than furs or forest produce, Slavic slaves were the main commodity changing hands. Through comprehensive analysis of the medieval coin hoards it has sought to reveal and confirm details of this trade and to explore the wider impact of the connections between Northern Europe and the Islamic world. 

Research aims

This project has used the analysis of the coin hoards, studies of the accounts of Arab geographers and travellers, and an examination of comparative evidence from other long-distance slave trade systems to explore the following research questions:

  • How did the Slavic slave-trade network in medieval Europe operate? How did it develop between the 9th–11th centuries and what can the changes in coinage tell us about the changing demand for slaves across medieval Europe over time? 
  • What was the role of the Samanid dynasty in the trading network? What can we learn from this about the nature of the Islamic demand for slaves and about the rise and eventual collapse of the trade?
  • Why were imitation dirhams produced and who were they produced by? What role did they play in stabilising the markets? 
  • What were the reasons for the massive hoarding of silver in Northern Europe and why might these hoards not have been retrieved?

This investigation into the operation of the trading network has sought to provide new insights into early medieval societies and to make a significant contribution to the wider study of medieval slavery. The findings from the project offer a new perspective on the formation of Europe, highlighting the contribution of the Islamic world to European history, and by providing a more inclusive picture, Dirhams for Slaves has sought to transform our understanding of the development of Europe during the Middle Ages and promote further study of this period.

Project funders

Arts and Humanities Research Council (AHRC)

Project team led by

Dr Luke Treadwell, Ashmolean Museum, University of Oxford

Project team

Dr Marek Janowiak, University of Oxford
Dr Johnathan Shephard, University of Oxford
Jacek Gruszczynski, University of Oxford 
Gert Rispling, KMK Stockholm, Sweden

Project start

October 2013

Outputs

Dirhams for Slaves online resource

Doctorate awarded to Jacek Gruszczynski. January 2017. Doctoral thesis: ‘Comparative study of archaeological contexts of silver hoards c. 800–1050 in Northern and Central Europe’

Sessions on Slavery. International Medieval Congress. 4th–7th July 2016. Leeds

Sessions at ‘Lost in Translation? Ibn Fadlan and the Great Unwashed’ Conference. 14th March 2016. Corpus Christi College, Oxford

Sessions at ‘Early Medieval Imitational Coinages’ Conference. 5th–7th November 2015. Royal Coin Cabinet, Stockholm

Special Exhibition ‘Islamic Trade with the Northern Lands in the Viking Age’. 8th June–28th September 2015. Money Gallery, Ashmolean Museum

Seminar Series 'The Dark Ages' Dirty Secret? Medieval slavery from the British Isles to the Eurasian steppes and the Mediterranean world'. April–June 2015

Sessions at ‘Iran Resurgent? Politics, Literature and Trade in the Samanid Era’ Conference. 22nd–23rd September 2014. Wadham College, Oxford

Session ‘Archaeology of the early medieval slave trade in Northern Europe: looking for the material evidence’. European Association of Archaeologists (EAA) Annual Meeting. 11th September 2014. Istanbul

Publications

Jankowiak, M. (2013) ‘Two systems of trade in the Western Slavic lands in the 10th century’, in Bogucki, R. M. and Rębkowski, M. (eds.), Economies, Monetisation and Society in the West Slavic Lands 800–1200 AD, 137–48.