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“This is the gold find of the century in Norway”

Erlend Bore
just wanted a hobby. So just before this summer, he bought a metal detector. To
get him off his couch and go treasure hunting.

He was
searching around the shore of the island Rennesøy in Stavanger, in Southwestern
Norway, when the metal detector started to beep. In a lump of soil, he saw
something that looked like gold coins.

“At first I
thought I’d found chocolate money with a gold wrapper, or play money,” Bore
says in a press release from the Museum of Archaeology in Stavanger.

But then he
realised what he’d found.

Nothing
less than “the gold find of the century in Norway”, according to Ole Madsen,
director of the museum.

And it most
likely dates to the 6th century.

This is what the necklace once looked like. It consists of nine thin gold medallions called bracteates.

Pendants
for the powerful

They look
like coins, but the round and flat gold pendants that Bore found are called
bracteates. Once upon a time, these nine bracteates formed quite the flashy
necklace, according to Håkon Reiersen, associate professor at the Museum of Archaeology
in Stavanger.

“This piece
of jewellery was made by skilled gold smiths and worn by the most powerful in
society. It’s very rare to find so many bracteates together. We have not had
any finds that compare to this since the 19th century,” Reiersen
says in the press release.

This time in
history is known as the Migration Period, and later the Merovingian Age which
starts around 550. A number of powerful people would have ruled over specific
parts of what would later become Norway.

This was also
a time of crisis, with failing crops, worsening climate and plagues, according
to Reiersen.

“The many
abandoned farms in Rogaland suggest that the crisis hit particularly hard in
this area,” he says.

Many of the
great finds of bracteates in Scandinavia have been hidden by somebody in the
ground in the mid-500s. 

Based on where the Rennesøy treasure was found, and comparisons to
other similar finds, Reiersen believes that the gold treasure was either hidden
for safekeeping, or perhaps offered to the Gods during desperate times.

One of the three rings that were found in Rennesøy.

One of the three rings that were found in Rennesøy.

Ten gold beads like this one are part of the Rennesøy treasure.

Ten gold beads like this one are part of the Rennesøy treasure.

An incredible find

“This is an
incredibly amazing find,” Dagfinn Skre says to sciencenorway.no. Skre is a
Professor of archaeology at the Museum of Cultural History in Oslo. He has not
been involved in the work around the gold treasure but spoke to
sciencenorway.no about the significance of the find.

“It’s very
rare to find so many bracteates of exactly the same kind in one place,” he
says.

Finds often
consist of a collection of bracteates with different motifs, but in this case,
all nine bracteats depict the same thing.

Bracteates
are flat and thin gold pendants that are stamped on one side.

“A thin
sheet of gold is pressed down on a bronze stamp, so that a motif is impressed on
it,” Skre explains.

The coin-like
medallions could have different motifs, for instance animals such as boars or
the Norse god Odin.

One example
is a large gold treasure unearthed in Denmark in 2020 called the Vindelev treasure.
The treasure consists of among other things bracteates that depict a male
figure that could be Odin. Runic inscriptions here mention the name of Odin for
the first time.

One of the bracteates found in Denmark in the Vindelev treasure. This bracteate depics the Norse god Odin.

One of the bracteates found in Denmark in the Vindelev treasure. This bracteate depics the Norse god Odin.

A rare
sort of bracteate

Around 1000
bracteates have been discovered in Scandinavia, but the ones found in Rennesøy
are of a rare sort, according to Sigmund Oehrl, Professor at the Museum of
Archaeology in Stavanger and expert on bracteates and their symbolism.

“The motif
is different than other gold pendants found up until now,” the Professor says
in the press release.

The usual
image on these round gold plates shows the god Odin healing his son Balder’s
sick horse. According to Oehrl, this myth was viewed as a symbol of renewal and
resurrection during the age of migration. It was believed to give its bearer
protection and good health.

The
Rennesøy-bracteates however, merely show a horse.

A close-up of one of the bracteates from Rennesøy in Stavanger. This one depicts a horse with its tongue hanging out of its mouth, according to the archaeologists. It is around two centimeters wide.

A close-up of one of the bracteates from Rennesøy in Stavanger. This one depicts a horse with its tongue hanging out of its mouth, according to the archaeologists. It is around two centimeters wide.

“In these
gold pendants, the horse’s tongue is hanging out, and it’s slumping posture and
the twisted legs show that it is hurt. Just as with the Christian symbol of the
cross which was becoming widespread in the Roman Empire at the time, this horse
symbol represented disease and distress, but at the same time also hope of
healing and new life,” Oehrl says.

Gifts
bestowed by the ruling kings? 

Dagfinn
Skre argues that the bracteates that are found in Scandinavia are similar to medallions
that were stamped in the Roman Empire during the 4th century.

They are
known from several sites in Norway and Denmark.

“In the
mid-400s, Scandinavians started making bracteates themselves, that were quite
clearly inspired by Roman medallions,” Skre says.

But what do
these gold medallions represent? Skre explains that there are many theories regarding
what the bracteates might be.

Skre believes
they might have been gifts that local kings bestowed on their most trusted men.
That way, the bracteates might have functioned as a sort of badge of honour
showcasing who the king trusted the most around the country.

“Those who
wore these sorts of things were likely powerful people. But it might be more
complex than that. These objects were not important as items of value, but
rather as something that showed your allegiance to a king,” Skre says.

He places
the bracteates in the context of archaeological finds in Denmark. The first
local bracteates were perhaps stamped in Fyn in Denmark, where the first
kingdom in Scandinavia may have been established, according to Skre.

Referring
to the Vindelev treasure again, where 13 bracteates with different motifs were
found, he suggests that generations of families might have built collections of
bracteates after being loyal to certain kings.

Erlend Bore shows off the 'gold find of the century' in Norway which he found with his brand new metal detector.

Erlend Bore shows off the ‘gold find of the century’ in Norway which he found with his brand new metal detector.

The
right thing to do

In addition
to the bracteates, Erlend Bore found ten gold beads and three gold rings. In total,
the find has a weight of 100 grams of gold.

“It was
completely unreal”, the 51-year-old says.

When he
found the treasure, Bore did exactly what he was supposed to do: he marked the
spot, stopped searching, and contacted Rogaland county municipality.

“We’re very happy that he did the right thing”, says archaeologist Reiersen. “It allowed us to go to the site and gather more information about what kind of a place this treasure had been deposited in,” he says. 

More images of the treasure and the site where it was found can be seen in the video below (words in Norwegian) 


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