Viking Jewelry Unearthed in Denmark

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A brooch dating to A.D. 500-700 discovered at a Viking-age farm site in Denmark.
Ole Kastholm/Roskilde Museum

Several pieces of Viking jewelry, some of which contain gold, have been uncovered at a farm site in Denmark that dates as far back as 1,300 years.

Although the Vikings have a popular reputation as being raiders, they were also farmers, traders and explorers, and the craftsmanship seen in this jewelry demonstrates their artistic skills.

Archaeologists working with volunteers used metal detectors to find the jewelry in different spots throughout a farmstead on Zealand, the largest island in Denmark. The remains of the site, which is now called Vestervang, date from the late seventh to the early 11th centuries.

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Finding such lavish goods at such a modest farm site poses a puzzle, the archaeologists said. The reason why the farm site would hold such treasure may lie in a legendary site located nearby. (See Photos of the Sparkling Viking Jewelry)

Heart-shaped animal head

The "most spectacular" example is 2.9 inches (73 millimeters) long and shows an image of a heart-shaped animal head with rounded ears and circular eyes, writes archaeologist Ole Thirup Kastholm, of the Roskilde Museum, in a paper published in the most recent edition of the Danish Journal of Archaeology. The piece, made of copper alloy, may be part of a necklace.

"The neck is covered by a beadlike chain," Kastholm writes. "Above the creatures forelegs, there are marked elbow joints and three-fingered paws or feet, which awkwardly grasp backwards to what might be hind legs or wings." The object probably had three similar images originally, but only one survives.

In addition to the animal image, the item, possibly a pendant, also shows three masked figures, each with a "drooping moustache." A "circular mark is seen between the eyebrows and above this, two ears or horns emerge, giving the humanlike mask an animal character," Kastholm writes.

He said that the animal image itself seems to be anthropomorphic, something not unusual in Viking age art. "Some of these anthropomorphic pictures, though, might be seen as representations of 'shamanic' actions, i.e. as mediators between the 'real' world and the 'other' world," Kastholm wrote in an email to LiveScience. He can't say for sure who would have worn it, but it "certainly (was) a person with connections to the elite milieu of the Viking age."

A golden Christian mystery

Another mysterious piece of jewelry found at Vestervang depicts a Christian cross and appears to have been created in continental Europe sometime between A.D. 500 and 750, predating the Viking-age farm site. (In Photos: New Viking Voyage Discovered)

"The decoration consists of a central wheel cross in relief, with inlaid gold pressed into a waffle form. The waffle gold is in some areas covered with transparent red glass or semiprecious stones and forming an equal-armed cross," writes Kastholm in the paper.

How the artifact arrived at a pre-Christian Viking-age farm site is a mystery. A Christian traveler may have brought it to Vestervang, or a non-Christian person at the site may have acquired it through exchange. The item would have been used as a brooch, and Kastholm said a female of "high rank" perhaps wore it on her dress.

It "tells us about close relations and networks between Southern Scandinavia and the European continent in late Iron Age, before the time of Christianization," Kastholm wrote in the email.