Finding old coins in the ground is no great trick in Germany. Indeed, there are small armies of hobby historians who, armed with handheld metal detectors, comb fields and forests for bits of old metal, often flouting laws prohibiting such treasure hunting. Roman coins, a bit of Celtic spare change and the occasional thaler of more recent provenance are hardly a rarity.
Recently, though, scientists in the eastern German state of Mecklenburg-Western Pomerania discovered a more meaningful treasure: silver coins with Arabic engravings, silver jewellery and bars. The find proves the existence of a trade route connecting Middle Eastern regions with the Baltic Sea coast dating back to the early Middle Ages.
The coins, the oldest of which dates to 610, were found in a field near the German town of Anklam, not far from the Polish border, at the end of August. "The discovery of Arabian coins on the Baltic Sea proves that global trade has existed for more than 1,200 years," Fred Ruchhöft, a historian from nearby Greifswald University, told the German news agency dpa.
Buried in Shallow Ground
The find, which scientists are calling significant, was more the product of serendipity than intent. Two years ago, the remains of a Slavic settlement were discovered in the area and further investigations of the site resulted in the unearthing of a single coin. Scientists and historians from the state and from the University of Greifswald then worked together to pinpoint the location of a possible treasure near Anklam.
Wielding metal detectors, they unearthed 82 coins and coin fragments, a silver bangle and three silver bars in the field. The items were scattered and buried in shallow ground, some 20 to 30 centimeters below the surface.
The treasure was discovered about 50 meters from the pathway of the OPAL natural gas pipeline, which will deliver oil from the Nord Stream pipeline -- currently under construction on the Baltic Sea floor -- to Central Europe.
Booming Region Along the Baltic
Ruchhöft says that it is extremely rare to find such coins in that region. The last such discovery in the region was made 40 years ago, when 2,000 coins from a separate Slavic settlement were found on the island of Rügen.
The coins from Anklam were produced in regions that today include northern Africa, Iran, Iraq and Afghanistan. The size of a two euro coin, the pieces made their way over trade routes that went along the Black Sea, the Dnieper, the Volga, and the Baltic Sea. In the early Middle Ages the Slavic settlement along the Peene River was booming, historians say. Today, the area is suffering from a dwindling population.
The Peene gave the region a direct outlet to the sea. The Slavic community existed near the Viking settlement of Menzlin, a strategically important base for trade between East and West. In Ruchhöft's assessment, the Slavs and the Vikings not only built a peaceful relationship as neighbors, but also developed a steady trade of goods. The coins could have been brought to the region by Arabian or Slavic tradesmen, experts say.
Enough Silver to Buy a Slave
Once in Pomerania, the coins lost their monetary value, and their value then became determined by the actual weight of the silver piece. The aesthetically beautiful pieces were likely hacked into halves or quarters so as to be used for bartering.
Scientists cannot say with certainty why the items were buried. "It was probably out of fear of being robbed that motivated the Slav to bury the treasure in the field," Ruchhöft said.
For about 200 grams of silver, which was the weight of the treasure, the owner could have bought four oxen, or, with skillful trading, acquired a slave.
Scientists are quick to warn amateur treasure seekers that all of the coins in the area have been found and that special permission from the state is required to use metal detectors on the site.