Falconer figurine

What is it?

This small, carved figurine depicting a falconer was discovered in Oslo, Norway. The object, made of bone, antler, or walrus tooth, is 7.5cm long, with a flat, oval cross-section. The lower half of the figurine is hollow, suggesting that it was designed to function as a handle for a tool or weapon. It is decorated on both sides and depicts a smiling figure, who could be male or female, with a crown on their head and an elaborate hairstyle at the back, wearing long robes, with a falcon perched on their right arm. The bird’s plumage is represented by an engraved lattice pattern. The object has been dated to the middle of the 13th century AD by the figure’s clothing and hairstyle.

Where was it found, and when?

The figurine was discovered in December 2021 during excavations in the Old Town area of Oslo, undertaken by the Norwegian Institute for Cultural Heritage Research, in preparation for the new Medieval Park in the centre of the city. It was unearthed close to the Kongsgården estate, a medieval royal residence that was in use until the start of the 14th century. When archaeologist Ann-Ingeborg Floa Grindhaug first pulled it from the ground, she thought that it was merely a large, strangely shaped fish bone, but on turning it around was surprised to find herself face-to-face with the smiling falconer. Further examination revealed it to be one of the finest artefacts found in Oslo in recent years.

Why does it matter?

The object is believed to be the handle of a tool like a small knife, letter opener, or hairpin, but, unlike most examples of objects like this, which are very worn from years or even generations of use, the details of the engraving are extremely crisp, suggesting that it was broken and discarded not long after its creation. The carved figurine, which was probably made in a workshop in Oslo, is one of the earliest representations of falconry in Scandinavia. Only a few similar finds depicting falcons have been found in northern Europe, including a similar handle found in Oslo in the 1920s, which is believed to be slightly later in date than this example.

The gender of the figurine is uncertain, as falconry was practised by both men and women in the medieval period. However, we do know that the person depicted is of high status, as falconry was a pursuit of the elite. The date of the object coincides with the reign of King Håkon Håkonsson (r. 1217-1263), who is known to have been an ardent falconer. He gave falcons as diplomatic gifts across Europe and beyond. While we cannot say for certain whether this figurine does in fact depict King Håkon, its date and the context in which it was discovered do make it a strong possibility.

Photo: Jani Causevic and Ann-Ingeborg Floa Grindhaug, the Norwegian Institute for Cultural Heritage Research.
Text: Amy Brunskill
See a 3D model of the figurine at https://skfb.ly/orKWq.
The Museum of Cultural History in Oslo is planning to include the find in their upcoming medieval exhibition.