Norwegian version of this page

Good as gold – coins are history

Gold is power - gold gives prestige. By minting gold coins, rulers have enabled people to meet and exchange values ​​in confidence for the past 2,600 years. And individual exploits live on by being honoured in gold.

gold coins

Gold coins from the Collection. Photo and collage: Museum of Cultural History, UiO/ Lill-Ann Chepstow-Lusty.

The invention of coins, and thus money in the modern sense, had major consequences for human activities such as trade, agriculture, the creation of cities and the organisation of society. Money ensured that people who did not trust each other could cooperate effectively. Money is the only trust-based system that can cross almost any cultural divide, and it does not discriminate on the grounds of religion, gender, race, age or sexual orientation.

All that glitters is gold

For 5,000 years, gold has meant status, wealth and a measure of value. Gold has been prominent throughout the history of money, from the first coins in Asia Minor from about 625 BC until the twentieth century when gold reserves formed the foundation of our monetary systems.

Gold coins and medals have always been associated with prestige and great value. They have had the greatest value throughout history, whether King Croesus’ largest coins, Roman emperors’ gold medallions, the most valuable coins minted in the Middle Ages and in more modern times, or the most prestigious awards for individuals.

The coin that established Norway’s monetary system

This spring we present a unique coin at the Historical Museum: a penny from the period of transition from the Viking Age to the Middle Ages, c. 1050 AD. It was King Harald Hardrada (‘hard ruler’) (1015–1066) who first introduced a national monetary system in Norway. All his pennies were struck in a single size and standard and weighed 0,9 gram. Foreign coins were soon replaced by Harald’s coins, and they were valid currency everywhere in the kingdom.

The obverse motif o is called a triqvetra and symbolized the Christian Trinity. The reverse shows a cross, as was the custom in other Christian countries. But Harald also chose a deeply religious motif for the obverse side, which usually showed a king’s portrait.

This is the best-preserved coin from the time of Harald Hardrada, and one of very few whose inscription is readable: HARALD REX NO, “Harald, King of the Norwegians” on the obverse, and VLF ON NIDARNE, “Ulf, Coin Master of Nidarnes” on the reverse. Photo: Museum of Cultural History / Lill-Ann Chepstow-Lusty.

Found in Sarpsborg

In 1852, Sarpsborg’s town council decided to build a new road that would cut through the medieval rampart, St. Olav’s Voll. The road workers discovered a hoard containing 45 coins from the late Viking Age. It was in this hoard that the penny from the time of Harald Hardrada came to light, along with one coin from the Byzantine Empire, 39 coins from the Holy Roman Empire (Germany), three Anglo-Saxon coins from England, and one from southern Scandinavia. The foreign coins were struck before Harald Hardrada came to power. We can therefore assume that King Harald’s silver penny was struck the same year he became king, in 1047.

Good as gold

The exhibition shows selected gold coins from the past 2,600 years, but also explains how a cow could be used as money before the introduction of coins. Fridtjof Nansen’s and Roald Amundsen’s extensive collections of decorations and gold medals are also displayed. In the gold portal we can also see 15,000 gold coins from the gold reserves of the Bank of Norway. This gold played the leading role in one of the greatest dramas of the German occupation of Norway. Many of these items have never been exhibited before.


The exhibition was opened to mark the 200-year anniversary of the Coin Cabinet in 2017.


Visit us - ticket prices, opening hours and how to get there

Published May 26, 2017 2:02 PM - Last modified Nov. 4, 2020 1:52 PM