1,500-year-old gold treasure discovered in Norway

Gold chain

This is what the gold chain might have looked like when it was intact around 1,500 years ago. © Theo Eli Gil Bell/Museum of Archeology at the University of Stavanger

Archaeological objects made of gold are rare in Europe - making a find made in Norway all the more spectacular. An amateur treasure hunter has discovered a gold hoard from the 6th century on an island in the city of Stavanger, which is extraordinary in size and content. It includes nine gold pendants with a rare motif, ten gold beads and three gold rings. According to experts, this is the “gold find of the century in Norway”. It also provides insight into a period of upheaval in Scandinavian history.

The 51-year-old Norwegian Erlend Bore is actually a newcomer to treasure hunting: he only bought a metal detector in the spring of 2023 - as motivation to get off the couch. But in the summer of this year he unexpectedly found what he was looking for. As he walked with the detector along the coast of the island of Rennesøy, which is part of the urban area of ​​the western Norwegian port city of Stavanger, a loud beeping sound occurred. “At first I thought I had just found chocolate coins wrapped in gold foil or play money,” Bore remembers.

Gold objects
Gold objects shortly after they were found. © Museum of Archeology at the University of Stavanger

“Gold find of the century”

After further searches uncovered gold beads and rings, Bore notified the Archaeological Museum at the University of Stavanger. There, archaeologist Håkon Reiersen from the University of Stavanger examined the finds. It turned out that the objects found were made of real gold and dated back to the sixth century. In total, the find includes ten gold beads measuring just under one centimeter, three rings made of spirally wound gold wire and nine gold chain pendants, so-called bracteates. These are coin-like gold discs embossed on one side.

“No comparable discovery has been made in Norway since the 19th century,” says Reiersen. “This is also a very unusual discovery for Scandinavia as a whole. His colleague Ole Madsen, director of the Archaeological Museum, even speaks of the “gold find of the century in Norway.” According to the researchers, what is unusual about it is both the amount of gold - a total of a good 100 grams - and the design and number of pieces of jewelry. “The nine bracteates and the ten gold beads once formed an impressive necklace,” says Reiersen. “This jewelry is crafted by skilled jewelers and was once worn by the most powerful in society.”

Coin pendant with an unusual motif

Unlike normal coins, the bracteates common in antiquity and late antiquity were not used as currency, but were worn as jewelry. Rulers often awarded them to deserving subjects, who then displayed them as a sign of their loyalty and high status. Originally only bracteates that came from the Roman Empire were widespread in Scandinavia. Only from the 5th century. The Scandinavians then began to make such pendants themselves. These often showed Nordic deities, including the god Odin. So far, only around a thousand gold bracteates have been found in all of Scandinavia. “It is also extremely rare to find so many bracteates together,” says Reiersen.

However, the motif embossed on the coin-like pendants is also unusual: "The symbols on the pendants usually show the god Odin healing his son Baldur's horse," explains bracteate specialist Sigmund Oehrl from the Archaeological Museum. “This myth was seen as a symbol of renewal and resurrection and was intended to give protection and good health to the wearer of the jewelry.” But on the newly discovered bracteates from Rennesøy only the horse can be seen, without Odin. Oehrl sees this as an indication that the symbol has become independent: “Similar to the Christian symbol of the cross, which spread in the Roman Empire around the same time, this horse represented illness and suffering, but at the same time also hope and new life,” explains Researcher.

This fits with the time from which these golden pendants come: The period beginning around 550 marks the so-called migration period in Scandinavia - a time of upheaval in which epidemics, bad harvests and unfavorable climatic conditions triggered a social and political crisis. “The abandoned farms from this period in Rogaland indicate that the crisis hit this region particularly hard,” explains Reiersen. This could also explain why the gold chain and the rings were not found in a cemetery as a grave item: they were probably buried to protect themselves from robbery, but perhaps also as an offering to the gods, explains Reiersen.

Source: Universitetet i Stavanger

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