Archaeological and Anthropological Sciences

, Volume 11, Issue 7, pp 3423–3434 | Cite as

Symbols missing a cause: the testimony of touchstones from Viking Age Iceland

  • Martin JežekEmail author
  • Sigrid Cecilie Juel Hansen
Original Paper


From the Early Bronze Age, tools used to determine the nature and value of precious metal have been used as traditional symbols in burial rituals. During the Early Medieval Period, balances, weights and touchstones became widespread in the northern part of Europe, or bullion-economy zone. This paper focuses on a selection of touchstones from Viking Age Iceland, from both graves and settlements. Chemical microanalyses of streaks of metals observed on their surfaces show that not only precious metals, but also other non-ferrous metals, and in particular lead, have been tested on touchstones. The settlement finds come primarily from high-status farms which have produced evidence of working with non-ferrous metals. The disproportion between the low frequency of precious metals and the relatively high representation of touchstones in burials, including the occurrence of clearly ostentatious specimens, is apparent in Iceland. However, due to uncertainty as to the origins of the metal streaks on imported touchstones, the workshop finds are regarded as the more important source for knowledge of both metalworking and social relations in Viking Age Iceland.


Viking Age Iceland Burial Precious metal Touchstones Ritual behaviour 



This paper was made possible by the support of the Czech Science Foundation (reg. no. 16-22207S). We would like to thank the National Museum of Iceland and the Institute of Archaeology at Reykjavík for lending us artefacts for analysis and thanks to the Innovation Center Iceland for providing access to their SEM and, in particular, to Birgir Jóhannesson for his great help. We are also grateful to Guðrún Alda Gísladóttir, Camilla Cecilia Wenn, Prof. Gavin Lucas, Ívar Brynjólfsson and Prof. James Graham-Campbell for their kind assistance.


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Copyright information

© Springer-Verlag GmbH Germany, part of Springer Nature 2019

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Czech Academy of SciencesInstitute of ArchaeologyPragueCzech Republic
  2. 2.Museum of East JutlandRanders CDenmark

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