Category Archives: Europe – General
A Belgian farmer moved a rock and accidentally annexed France: the weird and wonderful history of man-made borders
This stone marked the boundary between Belgium and France. By moving it 2.29 metres, he expanded Belgium’s territory.
We must assume he had driven around it before — the stone was placed on this site in 1819, as part of the proceedings that established the Franco-Belgian border in 1820 after Napoleon’s defeat.
For the farmer, it stood in the way of his tractor. For the governments of France and Belgium, it was an active international border.
This story suggests a fragility to borders that contradicts their apparent solidity in an atlas or on Google Maps. Human history is, however, full of arguments about where the edges of property lie.
‘Beating the bounds’
Nations establish their borders through treaties. Rivers are sometimes relied on to set boundaries, but even here tensions rise when there are disputes about interpretation. Is the boundary on the river banks, the deepest part of the river, or the very centre of the flow?
The fact these measurements can even be calculated is remarkable. Expecting high levels of accuracy in a map is a recent development.
The first attempts at consistent accuracy were in 19th century military maps, such as Britain’s Ordnance Survey.
Later development saw the topographical charts used by bushwalkers and mountain climbers. But only with the arrival of digital mapping did it became normal to pin-point our location on a map in everyday situations.
The precise location of boundaries was usually part of local knowledge, kept and maintained by members of the community. For centuries a practice known as “beating the bounds” was followed in parts of Great Britain, Hungary, Germany and the United States.
Members of the parish or community would walk around the edge of their lands every few years, perhaps singing or performing specific actions to help the route stick in the participants’ minds. By including new generations each time, the knowledge was passed through the community and remained active.
Beating the bounds was a tradition of spatial knowledge that carried weight — it was accepted as evidence in cases of disputed boundaries. It was also part of a larger tradition maintaining borders through physical symbolism, whether for good or bad.
Britain has a long history of using enclosure (the fencing or hedging of land) as a means to excluding the poor from accessing common resources. In contrast, in colonial Australia, the first fences were built to protect essential garden crops from scavenging livestock.
Sometimes the importance of the border was demonstrated with an elaborate marker. The Franco-Belgian stone was carved with a date and compass points, representing not only a boundary but also the end of Napoleon’s destructive wars.
Likewise, the boundary markers of Sydney from the same period included the name of the Governor, Richard Bourke.
Manipulation … and incompetence
Formality was not always required. At a local level in the Australian colonies, boundaries were often marked by painting, slashing or burning a mark into a tree. These were easy to ignore, and frustrated landholders placed public notices in the newspapers cautioning against trespassing. People constantly took timber from private properties, or grazed their livestock without hesitation wherever was convenient to them.
Landholders included descriptions of their properties — detailing landmarks and neighbouring properties — in their notices, so there could be no doubt about which land was taken.
But these descriptions formed a circular argument: the potential trespasser needed to know who held each property in order to establish whose property they were about to enter. How effective they were at actually preventing trespass remains unclear.
Rivers were an obvious boundary marker, although European settlers quickly learned how to manipulate them to suit their own needs. By quietly blocking a section of river with trees and other rubbish, they could divert its route to suit their own wishes. By the time the surveyor came to verify or reassess boundaries, the landholder had been using their stolen acres for several years.
Throughout the 19th century, Australian survey departments devoted huge resources to undoing the confusion created by manipulation and incompetence in earlier years.
Markers of time
When the Belgian farmer this week got fed up with going around the stone and decided to move it, he was participating in a time-honoured tradition of manipulating impermanent boundary markers. But if he was able to move it, then who is to say it had not been moved before?
Historic boundary markers like this one have a habit of being in technically the wrong place, even if they are in precisely the right place to commemorate a moment in time.
Perhaps that is where their true significance sits.
Swedish Viking hoard: how the discovery of single Norman coin expands our knowledge of French history
In the autumn of 2020, I was contacted by the field archaeology unit of the Swedish National Historical Museums, who are also known as the Archaeologists. They were excavating at a Viking-age settlement at Viggbyholm just north of Stockholm. During routine metal detecting of the site, they had located a very exciting find: eight silver necklaces and other silver jewellery along with 12 coins, everything delicately wrapped up in a cloth and deposited in a pot. In other words, a genuine Viking silver hoard.
As a professor in numismatics, the study of currency, I have spent my life becoming an expert in coins, so was called to help them learn more about this exciting discovery. It turned out to be a very interesting find. Most of the coins were the types that we usually see in Sweden: English, Bavarian, Bohemian (Czech) and Islamic coins as well as imitations of Islamic coins. But one of the coins was unusual.
A rare coin from Viking Normandy
Found within this hoard was a Norman coin from the late tenth century. It is only the second Norman coin found in Sweden, and they have rarely been found in the rest of Scandinavia. This is surprising because the duchy of Normandy was created when King Charles the Simple of West Francia (roughly modern-day France) gave a bit of land to the Viking chief Rolf (or Rollo) in 911.
You would have expected this affiliation to have led to an influx of Norman coins to Scandinavia, but this is clearly not the case. Maybe the reason is that the newly settled Vikings had learned from their Frankish neighbours to blend copper into the silver coins. And their Scandinavian cousins were only interested in high-quality silver coins, such as the English, German and Islamic ones.
But this is not the only interesting feature about the newly discovered Norman coin. It turned out to be of a type that had not been seen since the 18th century. Several scholars had doubted the very existence of this type of coin, arguing that the 18th-century record was a misreading. But the Viggbyholm find proved that they were wrong. The type did exist. So this Swedish find contributes to our knowledge of French history.
Viking Coins in Sweden
At the moment, I’m working in close collaboration with the Archaeologists to interpret the hoard. The coin shows that it should be dated to the last years of the tenth century. All the coins were turned into jewellery, mounted as pendants. The hoard was very carefully deposited within a house. This shows that the Viggbyholm hoard belongs to a category of hoards deposited for special reasons, maybe a ritual of a kind that we do not know the exacts details of.
Indeed, the average Viking hoard in Sweden is quite different.
Like Viggbyholm, it consists of a mixture of coins and other silver artefacts, the coins being of various origins. But contrary to Viggbyholm, coins and artefacts are often present in hundreds or even thousands. What’s more, coins, jewellery and silver ingots were often cut into pieces. They were bent and pecked with knives to check their consistency – good silver is soft. This is because the Vikings did not use coins as coins, they used them as silver bullion based on their weight.
Most of the coins were from abroad. When the coins left their homelands, whether from England, Germany, the Middle East or central Asia, their fixed value was effectively no longer guaranteed. In Sweden, they were merely bits of silver along with other silver artefacts. This is why the Vikings accepted all kinds of coins regardless of origin and age – provided that they were of good silver.
As a result, the obligatory tools of Viking tradesman were foldable scales and weights that could be brought along on long journeys. These items are often found in archaeological excavations, witnessing the Viking trade habits. Contrary to popular belief, Vikings were not only bloodthirsty raiders.
These Swedish Viking-age silver finds are part of a series of discoveries that have helped create a broader picture of Viking Britain, Ireland, the North Atlantic, Scandinavia, the Baltic, Russia, Belarus and Ukraine. Almost 900,000 silver coins are on record from these areas, besides other silver artefacts. Russia, Poland and Sweden have the most finds, with about 250,000 coins each.
Two-thirds of the Swedish finds are from the Island of Gotland in the Baltic, making it the place with the highest find density of medieval silver discoveries in the world. Thanks to an antiquarian tradition going back to the 17th-century, the Swedish finds are exceptionally well documented.
Written sources from this period are rare, so silver finds are extremely important for our understanding of Viking history. And as the Viggbyholm find demonstrates, new finds turn up and add to our ever-changing understanding of past society. This is what makes archaeology so exciting to work with.