Gold bracteate

What is it?

This gold pendant, known to specialists as a bracteate, is 5cm in diameter and comes from a Danish hoard dated to the 6th century AD – the object itself dates to the early 5th century. The front of the pendant bears the image of a man in profile with an elaborate hairstyle. In front of his face are a semicircle and a swastika, perhaps symbolising the moon and the sun, while below it is a four-legged animal, most likely a horse. Surrounding the central motif is a long runic inscription. The runes are exceptionally well executed, but very faded in some places, so cannot be fully deciphered. However, researchers are now confident that the final section reads iz Wōd[a]nas weraz (‘he is Odin’s man’) – presumably referring to the figure depicted in the centre – making this the earliest known reference to the Norse god.

Where was it found, and when? 

The pendant is part of the Vindelev Treasure, one of the richest hoards found in Denmark in recent times. The Treasure, which contains 800g of gold, was discovered near Jelling in December 2020 by metal-detectorists and excavated by archaeologists from Vejle Museums and the National Museum of Denmark. The excavations determined that it had been buried in or near a longhouse here c.1,500 years ago, perhaps to protect  it from invaders or as a dedication to the gods. In the Treasure are several other bracteates, including an example cast from a similar die to this one, although  the quality is less good, and the inscription contains several mistakes. The bracteates may once have made up a kind of mayoral chain or necklace.

Why does it matter? 

The inscription on the bracteate contains the earliest runic mention of Odin known from anywhere in the world, pre-dating the previous earliest example (from southern Germany) by 150 years, and the earliest from Denmark by  three centuries, thus providing concrete evidence that at  least one of the gods of Norse mythology was already familiar here by the start of the 5th century.

The discovery also offers a valuable insight into the ruling families and power centres of the area in this period, about  which relatively little is currently known. The individual depicted on the coin, referred to as ‘Odin’s man’, probably  represents an important figure, most likely a previously unidentified king or overlord. Another part of the inscriptions even gives us a possible name or nickname: ‘Jaga’ or ‘Jagaz’. 

The inscription itself is valuable, too, for its remarkable quality and length. Translation presents a challenge, not just because the runes are worn in some places and there are no gaps between the individual words, but because the Norse language changed significantly in later centuries. The efforts of runologist Lisbeth Imer and linguist Krister Vasshus in translating the long, complex inscription, which contains many words that subsequently fell out of use, represent an important step towards understanding other prehistoric runic inscriptions as well.

The bracteate is on display with the rest of the Vindelev Treasure in the exhibition The Hunt for Denmark’s History at the National Museum of Denmark until 4 February 2024:

Text: Amy Brunskill / Photo: Arnold Mikkelsen, National museum of Denmark