A carved piece of bone or antler with what may be Scandinavia’s oldest known depiction of falconry has recently been unearthed in Norway.
Working in the winter snow in Oslo, archaeologists from the Norwegian Institute for Cultural Heritage Research (NIKU) uncovered the object during excavations (continuing until March) in the city’s Old Town, as part of the Follo Line railway project. The dig has so far revealed a large number of objects, as well as traces of buildings, old streets, and infrastructure like pipes and wells, in this historic part of the capital.
The recently discovered 7.5cm-long figurine shows a person holding a falcon and wearing a crown, possible head linen (or hair), and clothing in a mid-13th-century style, according to NIKU art historian Kjartan Hauglid. Both men and women of the nobility practised falconry, so it is unclear whether this is a male or female figure. Only a small number of similar finds with falcons are known from northern Europe, some which also portray women.
It is a detailed depiction, with the plumes of the bird of prey marked in careful lattice-work. Such execution would have been fitting for an elite owner.
The lower half is hollow, suggesting it was used as a knife-handle, or a shaft for another weapon or tool. It was found near Kongsgården, which was the royal residence until the 14th century, and so this may have been the knife of the king or some other noble.
One medieval Norwegian king, Håkon Håkonsson, was particularly noted for making diplomatic gifts of falcons during his reign (1217-1263). As the dates of his reign match up with the style of the clothing depicted, one possibility is that the figure represents King Håkon.
The team working at the Medieval Park have also found two runic inscriptions, one carved on bone (the first to be found in Oslo for more than 40 years) and the other on wood. Similar finds date to AD 1100-1350, but planned scientific analyses will shed further light on their age.
While both inscriptions were found in refuse layers, which project leader Mark Oldham notes may be linked to land reclamation in flood zones, the piece of bone was found near the natural deposits and so may be older than the wood.
Kristel Zilmer at the University of Oslo has been studying the runic inscriptions, and has initially interpreted the bone Old Norse inscription as indicating that this is ‘Boat-Mård’s bone’ or that the bone comes from a sheep (though the bone actually appears to come from a horse or cow). The ‘boat’ part of ‘Boat-Mård’ is likely to have been a nickname, and ‘Mård’ perhaps wrote this after finishing eating from the bone.
The inscription on wood is rather different in character. On one side are the Latin words manus (‘hand’) and Domine or Domini (‘lord’), from the prayer ‘Into your hands, O Lord, I commend my spirit’. On the opposite side, in Old Norse, is the name ‘Bryngærðr’, and on one narrow edge some runes that may be in Latin or Old Norse, in which case they perhaps say ‘it is true’. Taken together this may be a short prayer about Bryngærðr, similar to a formula found in an Old Norse inscription at the Urnes Stave Church.