The Viking site of Jelling in western Denmark may be well known for its royal burials and a large rune stone set up by King Harald Bluetooth to proclaim his unification of Denmark and the conversion of the Danes to Christianity, but the recent discovery of a remarkable hoard close by is bringing another, older dynastic centre into the spotlight and shaping up a broader picture of power in the area.
During the Christmas period of 2020, amateur archaeologist Ole Ginnerup Schytz went with his newly acquired detector for a walk on his old classmate Jørgen Antonsen’s field in Vindelev, a mere 8km from Jelling in south-eastern Jutland. A few hours later, world history was a unique gold find richer.
Including what is currently thought to be the world’s largest gold bracteate – a thin, decorated gold pendant – the hoard consists of 23 pieces making up 18 objects (some in fragments) with a total weight of 794g. It dates from what in Denmark is called the Germanic Iron Age (c.AD 400-750), a period that is seen by some researchers as a prelude to the actual Viking Age, as there are a number of events and structures in society pointing towards what will come next. Motifs and runes on the gold pieces are unique and reveal a variety of new, so far unseen elements of iconography and religion. All this means it ranks among the most precious finds in Danish and European archaeology.
Investigation into the hoard is a work in progress by an ongoing joint research- and exhibition-project between the Danish National Museum and Moesgaard Museum, and so our findings discussed here are preliminary results. After the initial discovery, the findspot was excavated by archaeologists from Vejle Museum. All the gold has been recovered and we have carried out a preliminary excavation. So far, it seems that a prominent person, or rather his or her dynasty near the village of Vindelev for generations, was the owner of this hoard.
The name of the village itself may offer some clues about this dynasty. The suffix -lev is in general related to the contemporary Danish words ‘at levne’ with the meaning ‘heirloom’, and so Vindelev may mean ‘Winde’s heirloom’. This particular suffix dates from the period before the Viking Age and suggest that this ‘Winde’ and his dynasty lived here between the AD 300s and 550s. The quality of the find means that there was a powerful warlord in south-eastern Jutland more than 400 years before the Viking King Harald Bluetooth placed the well-known rune stone in Jelling, just 8km away.
GPS data from Ole Ginnerup Schytz’s detector survey showed that the hoard was in two main concentrations, while the rest of it had been spread further around the field by ploughing. Below the two concentrations, our fieldwork uncovered traces of a contemporary 6th-century settlement consisting of longhouses and fences. The hoard appears to have been deposited all at once close to what looks like a normal longhouse in the Iron Age settlement.
Gold hoards have previously been found buried at or in houses and, with what we know so far, we must interpret this as if it was deposited in the house, where the owner lived. To attempt to understand why and answer other questions, we need to look in more detail at the contents of the find, the iconography, and how the items were treated before their burial.
The find contains something as rare as four Roman gold medallions with portraits of important emperors of the 4th century. Exceptionally, these four medallions were found in the same context as their Nordic bracteate counterparts. The combination of these two types of objects in a single context is not something we have seen before.
The oldest medallion, a 24-karat piece of gold weighing 39.5g, depicts Constantine the Great (r. AD 306-337). It was minted in Trier, in present-day Germany, in AD 335. The letters are worn, as is its reverse side. From the find context, we suggest that it was deposited on one occasion with the rest of the hoard, meaning that the medallions were around 200 years old when buried.
Two heavily worn medallions portray the emperors Constans (r. 337-350) and Gratian (r. 367-383). Another is from Valentinian I (r.364-375); it was stamped in Thessaloniki in Greece, while the others were also minted in Trier. The Valentinian medallion is 24-karat gold and weighs 44.1 g. On the obverse, we see a depiction of the emperor. On the reverse, we see him again, this time in his role as commander-in-chief of the military, wearing armour and a long cloak. At the feet of the emperor sits a prisoner of war, hands bound behind his back, most likely representing subjected barbarians of the Roman Empire.
The fact that Roman gold medallions were used as personal, diplomatic gifts from the emperor to close allies of the elite raises the question: could these rare items be gifts to a high-ranking Germanic warlord from Vindelev? In that case, the contact must have lasted over many generations, as, from both the number of medallions and the wear on the gold, we can see that the items were venerated heirlooms, long serving to remind the dynasty in Vindelev of these recurring, prestigious personal alliances.
Apart from the medallions and a mouthpiece that decorated the opening of a scabbard, the rest of the Vindelev hoard consists of two different types of bracteates: eight A-bracteates, which mainly depict faces, and five C-bracteates, which bear the image of a person with a horse. Based on their style, they apparently belong to the older part of the Nordic bracteate tradition of the 5th century. The iconography and the runes of the Nordic bracteates are particularly important as unique examples that create an echo of an impenetrable social, religious, and mental universe of the Iron Age people. One theory is that the motifs are depictions of current gods of the time, and that we may be able to identify Nordic gods (especially Odin), mythological creatures, and mythological tales among the motifs. Some of the depictions may even be of ceremonies and rituals performed among earthly people, probably the aristocracy.
In this context, one C-bracteate (which we have labelled X4) is particularly interesting, because it is surprisingly similar to a contemporary bracteate found in the 17th century on Funen, the middle island of Denmark. The two, almost identical, bracteates indicate close alliances between south-east Jutland and the contemporary Funen power centre, some 135km to the south-east of Vindelev. During this period, there was on Funen an important cult site and centre of power based around Gudme and neighbouring Lundeborg.
On bracteate X4 we see a man and a four-legged animal, probably a horse. Around him are runic inscriptions. The man has an impressive hairstyle ending in a long braid and he wears a crown with two rows of beads that run through his hair. Above the animal’s head and in front of the man’s face is a large bird of prey, maybe a raven, staring into his eyes. Under the horse’s muzzle are runes, a probable interpretaion of which is ‘HOUAR’, meaning ‘The High One’. This may be an early version of a nickname for Odin, who is known as such from later sources in Norse mythology; for example, from the Old Norse poem Hávamál.
The iconography probably also illustrates the ideal king and warlord on horseback. We find this ‘aristocratic combination’ of man and horse often, for example, among contemporary graves in Anglo-Saxon England and in Scandinavia. Some rich burials contain a combination of stylish grave gifts (including drinking utensils and gaming pieces), and, in the very same graves, horses and other animals buried with the person. The Sutton Hoo grave is just one extravagant example of a trend that can be identified in numerous less-conspicuous graves such as on Spong Hill in eastern England. Looking at this iconography, one can imagine Odin the King riding his horse with his dogs and ravens, the wise lord playing strategic games with the clever giant, Mímir, in life and death, as we read in the Sagas much later. It is quite likely that the aristocracy created their gods in their own image.
In addition to the name ‘HOUAR’, there are other legible inscriptions. Behind the man’s head is written in runes ‘ALU’, meaning ‘beer’, or ‘I protect’, and at the bird’s tail stands ‘LAÞU’, meaning ‘I invite’. Is it ‘The High One’ who is extending an invitation to a celebration or ceremony where beer is included? Why beer is mentioned is also difficult to understand, but we know, for example, from the Old English epic Beowulf (which is dated much later in writing, but which probably reveals pre-Christian ideals and rituals from the 6th century) that wine, mead, and beer are part of important social and ritual ceremonies. It is in the ‘meadhall’ the king and the lady of the house served drinks to their retainers (see verses 609-621 and 1169-1200).
Six of the ten largest known bracteates appear in the Vindelev hoard, suggesting that the site was important in terms of both symbolic and actual power. One, which we refer to as X10, was recently confirmed to be the largest bracteate, even though it is still curled up. This particular bracteate measures 13.8cm in diameter, and is thus 1.5cm wider than the previous record-holder, a bracteate from Åsum in Scania, in present-day Sweden. It is also the heaviest, with a weight of 123.7g (23.4g heavier than the Swedish bracteate). The iconography in the middle of the still folded X10, revealed by X-ray, again presents a regal image and depicts two king-like twins, probably identical to the picture on another bracteate (X20) in the find.
It looks like this largest bracteate (X10) is folded symmetrically – as are some of the others. This means it must have been folded intentionally by the owners, and not randomly by later ploughing in the field. Destroying something deliberately is a treatment often seen in offering rituals as a way of taking items out of service. Ritual destruction was practiced throughout the Nordic Stone, Bronze, and Iron Ages. The closest comparisons to the Vindelev find are the large weapon-offering deposits from the 3rd to 5th centuries, where numerous weapons have been found bent and broken intentionally.
At Vindelev, all this happened in the 6th century, our investigations seem to suggest. The youngest of the objects is the mouthpiece of a scabbard. Its size could indicate that it was a mouthpiece not for a sword but a dagger. It is adorned with beautiful, writhing animal-style figures with eyes and mouths, and looks like an intermediate phase between what archaeological specialists call Style I and II. This style dates the mouthpiece to the first half of the 6th century.
So, we have a more recent, early-6th-century mouthpiece buried with ‘antique’ Roman medallions from the 4th century, and ritually ‘killed’ bracteates from the 5th century, probably in a single event. Why? I suggest that compelling evidence for a disastrous volcanic event in the middle of the 6th century may offer an explanation. Firstly, ice cores from Greenland indicate that there was more ash in the atmosphere at this time. Secondly, tree rings from ancient trees point to a colder climate in these years – a disaster for farmers who live on the edges of the climatic zones where grain can grow. And thirdly, contemporary Roman written sources also paint a picture of a huge veil of volcanic ash that covered the sun and caused prolonged climatic cooling from 536 to the 550s. Limited solar radiation from a veil of ash like this leads to vitamin D deficiency and a weakened immune system (also not helped by poor harvests), providing breeding grounds for plague epidemics, which indeed appeared in the 540s in Byzantium and most likely in Northern Europe too.
The gold hoard may therefore have been deposited as an offering to higher powers from a desperate, starving agricultural population with a hope for better times. The ritual destruction of the largest and most precious bracteate may be the second-most valuable offer to make (after one’s own life). For whatever reason, the Vindelev hoard was deposited under the house floor and was never picked up again. What happened to the inhabitants – whether they died or emigrated to a better place – we cannot say for sure. We know, however, of extensive migrations to England from the North Sea coast of Germany and Denmark from other sources before and during this event. According to the Anglo-Saxon Venerable Bede (AD 672-735), some of those were also Jutes, whose homeland is thought to be Jutland.
The chaos of these decades is seen throughout Scandinavia; in the area around Vindelev, a number of settlements did not continue after the mid 6th century. Either we just have not found later occupation of the settlements, or they are, as we are inclined to think, deserted as a consequence of a dust veil event. In any case, the settlement pattern changes over the following centuries as the remaining settlements increase in size, a trend that points to a concentrated growing social complexity. Some have suggested that this growth was linked to Midgaard, the phenomenon of the Viking worldview already emerging in the 7th century. It is also in this period that the large aristocratic, so-called ‘royal’ halls from Uppsala (Sweden), Lejre, Tissø, and Erritsø (Denmark), and elsewhere seem to appear, something that we also see in Anglo-Saxon England such as at Yeavering, Cowdery Down, and, more recently, Rendelsham. Whether the myth of the Fenris wolf eating the sun at Ragnarök can be traced back to this volcanic event is unclear – but why not?
In the context of the Vindelev find, the question of whether a powerful warlord or king resided in Vindelev long before the Jelling dynasty of the Viking kings Gorm and Harald remains. It seems that ‘Winde’s’ lineage could be traced as far back as the 4th century and that the dynasty had important relations to the Romans and to the Gudme and Lundeborg centre in Funen for a long while.
The Danish kings appear in written sources in the early 6th century, when they are first mentioned by Gregory of Tours (538-594). The extent of their territory is, however, unclear. But in this context, it is interesting to note that the oldest phase of the fortifications of Danevirke, the kingdom’s later border 168km to the south of Vindelev, has recently been dated back to the 5th century. It may also be pertinent to remember that King Harald’s mother, Queen Thyra, is mentioned on four rune stones in south-east Jutland in the 10th century, in a radius of 8-40km from Vindelev. Could it be that her dynasty, a Jutish one, had such significant power back in time – possibly even all the way back to the Vindelev hoard – that King Gorm, a king whose origins are widely discussed, had to marry her in order to win all of Denmark? While this hypothesis remains to be tested, what the Vindelev discovery can tell us is that there was a powerful figure in the area in the Iron Age, one whose ancestors had commemorated their alliances through the golden heirlooms that were buried during the tumultuous times of the 6th century.
The Vindelev Hoard is on display in Vejlemuseerne at Kunstmuseet, Vejle, Denmark. It is part of the exhibition Power and Gold: Vikings in the east, which runs until 18 December 2022. Admission is free. Booked tours for a fee can be arranged in advance. Visit www.vejlemuseerne.dk for more information.
A catalogue in English and Danish on the find and the Vikings in the east has also been published by Turbine Aarhus: Power and Gold: Vikings in the east, edited by M Ravn and C Lindblom (https://turbine.dk/produkt/magt-og-guld).
The author thanks the Agency for Culture and Palaces for supporting a rescue excavation at the site, the Municipality of Vejle for supporting and guaranteeing the exhibition of the find, and the National Museum of Denmark for general support. Also thanks to Moesgaard Museum for support in preparing the exhibition. Special thanks to Augustinus Foundation, Knud Højgaard’s Foundation, Aage and Johanne Louis Hansen Foundation, and Konsul Georg Jorck and Hustru Emma Jorck’s Foundation for sponsoring this exhibition.
ALL IMAGES: Conservation Centre Vejle.