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ARCHAEOLOGY

Archaeologists celebrate spectacular discovery of Danish Iron Age treasure

Evidence suggests that a recently uncovered treasure trove of Iron Age gold in Denmark was a rich man’s gift to the Gods. And there turned out to be much more where that came from, writes Mads Ravn, head of research at Vejle Museums.

Archaeologists celebrate spectacular discovery of Danish Iron Age treasure
Photo: ScienceNordic

In the year 536 CE, a volcano erupted in El Salvador. What happened next is fiercely debated, but one hypothesis is that it lead to an extensive but short-lived climate change that was felt across the northern hemisphere.

This article was originally published on ScienceNordic

In Northern Europe it was felt as a string of poor summers and failed harvests.

Numerous Roman sources describe the sun as dark during the day and according to the 6th century Syriac Chronical written by the Zachariah of Mitylene from Greece, there was “great despair among the people.”

Ice cores from Greenland pinpoint the year of the eruption to 536 CE, right in the middle of all the gold treasure discovered by amateur archaeologists in fields throughout Scandinavia.

The most recent discovery was made by a pair of metal detectorists and amateur archaeologists in a field on the Danish island of Hjarnø, in Horsens Fjord. It was a spectacular discovery and an expensive one, containing more than 34 objects, 27 of which are pure gold.

Forgotten treasure or a gift for the gods?

Amateur archaeologist, Terese Refsgaard, alerted us to the discovery at Vejle Museums, in accordance with Danish law. And one of our first questions was whether the objects were buried together as treasure to be hidden, or whether it was intended as an offering to the gods.

Treasure is buried in a hurry to hide it during times of threat or during a turbulent situation, and is often intended to be collected again once the threat has passed. But an offering is intended to remain buried as a gift to the gods.

Sacrifices often contain a certain combination of objects, probably so that they can be used later on in Valhalla, as described in the Ynglinga saga.


Photo: ScienceNordic

There are many indications that the recent Hjarnø discovery was such an offering. It contains women’s jewellery, gold beads, and bracteates—thin gold discs with a small eyelet worn by women on a string or chain around their neck. They must have belonged to a rich woman of high social status.

It also contained numerous small gold pieces that would have been used as a form of payment.

READ MORE from ScienceNordic: Vikings versus Iron Age: Who made the best swords?

Subsequent excavation revealed more than double the amount of Iron Age gold

The next question to answer was whether any more gold was hidden at the site?

So, in late summer 2018, we started to excavate at the site of the Refsgaard’s discovery, which was recorded by GPS.

We slowly revealed the fine layers of earth and passed metal detectors over the site.

We dug down to the subsoil where archaeologists often find post holes and other traces of past life. As we went, we discovered even more gold—more than double the amount originally discovered.

This shows just how vulnerable the treasure has been over the years as it was not buried particularly deep. Throughout the following centuries of ploughing it’s a wonder that it wasn’t ploughed away entirely. It just goes to show how quickly relicts from the past can disappear.

READ MORE from ScienceNordic: Archaeologists uncover remains of a horrifying Iron Age battle in Denmark

Perhaps a gift to please the angry gods

We could not see that the offering had been buried in a house, as is sometimes the case.

So we think that it was a typical offering made in the hope that the gods could help those who buried the treasure through a difficult time. And we know that it dates to the 6th century.

Was it intended to appease angry gods and end the poor summers and dark skies following the El Salvador volcanic eruption?

Or was it thanks to the ultimate collapse of the Western Roman Empire a few decades earlier, whereby the gold was brought to Denmark by returning ‘new rich’ aristocrats, who defined a new ritual practice and religion based on the Nordic Gods? We do not know…

READ MORE from ScienceNordic: The biggest status symbol in the Nordic Iron Age was a goose

Chieftains used gold offerings to show off to the gods

Regardless of why the offering was made, it was surely buried by a man of high social status, perhaps a chieftain looking to demonstrate his power and influence to the gods.

It certainly demonstrated that his wife was powerful enough that she could sacrifice all this gold and probably had more where that came from. In the same way that we today spend money on expensive cars that perhaps cost more than is necessary.

In the coming years, Vejle Museums will analyse the objects to discover where the gold came from, how it was made, who brought it to Denmark, and precisely why it was laid in the ground at Hjarnø looking out to sea.

In the meantime, the gold will be on display in Vejle at The Vejle Museums, Museum of Cultural History, from the end of January 2019.

This article was originally published on ScienceNordic

READ ALSO: Amateur Danish archaeologist finds 1,500 year-old treasure

VIKINGS

Danish treasure discovery could yield new knowledge of pre-Viking people

An amateur archeologist has found 22 gold objects with sixth century symbols that could yield new details about pre-Viking peoples in Denmark, the museum that will house the treasure said on Monday.

Danish treasure discovery could yield new knowledge of pre-Viking people
An unrelated illustration photo from an earlier discovery showing Saxon, Ottonian, Danish and Byzantine coins. STEFAN SAUER / DPA / AFP

Some of the objects have runic motifs and inscriptions which may refer to the rulers of the time, but also recall Norse mythology, Mads Ravn, director of research at the Vejle museums in western Denmark, told AFP.

“It is the symbols on the items that makes them unique, more than the quantity found,” according to Ravn, who said the treasure weighed about one kilogram.

One piece even refers to the Roman emperor Constantine from the early 4th century, said Ravn.

“The find consists of a lot of gold items, including a medallion the size of a saucer,” Ravn added.

According to initial examinations, the treasure could have been buried as an offering to the gods at a chaotic time when the climate in northern Europe dramatically turned colder after a volcanic eruption in Iceland in 536 sent ash clouds into the sky.

“They have many symbols, some of which have not been seen before, which will enable us to enlarge our knowledge of the people of this period,” he said.

The treasure was found near Jelling in southwestern Denmark, which historians say became a cradle for kings of the Viking-age which lasted between the 8th and 12th centuries.

The treasure will be on display at the museum in Vejle from February 2022

The amateur archeologist using a metal detector found the treasure about six months ago but the news was only disclosed now.

READ ALSO: DNA analysis reunites Viking relatives in Denmark after 1,000 years 

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