Paper-thin Merovingian gold squares found in Norway

Norwegian archaeologists have unearthed five paper-thin stamped gold squares in Vingrom outside Lillehammer. The pieces are tiny, about the size of a fingernail, and as thin as paper or aluminum foil. They are typically stamped with figures of men and women in elegant clothes standing facing each other. They date to Norway’s Merovingian period, the era from 550 A.D. to the dawn of the Viking age in 793 A.D.

Despite the fact that the gold nuggets are so small, the motifs have a striking richness of detail. Usually the woman is dressed in a side dress, sometimes with a tow and a cape, and the man has a shorter skirt so that the feet are visible. He can also wear a cape, and both can wear jewelry, different hairstyles and hold different things like drinking cups, wands or rings in the hands or have hands to point to different gestures. They are actually so detailed and varied that they are the source of studies of the time’s costume and iconographic studies. […]

Most interpretations of gold guys mean that they have had a mythical or ritual meaning. And it is suggested that the gold nuggets with couple motifs reflect the hierogamy myth, the holy wedding between the habit god Frøy and the jotun daughter Gerd, or that they may have been used as an offering when celebrating a wedding or in fertility rituals. They can also be interpreted ideologically as representing the mythical ancestors or the descendants of chiefs and first families, and may then have served as an authentication of the ruling families’ power-political demands and ruling role.

Excavations at the site along the E6 highway began this summer in advance of road expansion. Previous small-scale excavations in the area unearthed 30 gold squares that archaeologists believe were connected to a “god’s court,” an ancient place of worship that was discovered there in 1993. The building was small — no more than 50 feet long at a time when residential homes were usually between 65 and 100 feet long. Archaeologists believe it was used purely for ritual purposes rather than feasting or habitation. Perhaps only a select elite of society were allowed inside.

There are only about 10 such temple sites in Norway where the gold squares have been found, and the 30 found here were by far the largest single collection discovered at a god’s court. The team were therefore not expecting to find any more in the new excavation. They were elated to unearth five of them in the past two weeks.

The newly-discovered gold squares are of particular significance because they were found in the precise locations of their deposition. Three of them were found where the wall of the temple once was. Two were found in postholes. For the first time, archaeologists are now able to link the gold pieces directly to the construction of the building. They were placed in the foundations before the walls were built.

It’s not known what purpose the little gold people served, but one of the hypotheses is that they were given to the temple by worshippers as a kind of price of admission. The five pieces found under the walls and postholes could not have been accessible to people seeking admission to the building, so their discovery points to the squares having been a sacrifice or a ritual of protection before construction.

The excavation is ongoing and over the fall and winter, the remains of the building will be radiocarbon dated. It should be possible to establish when the house of the gods was built and perhaps even how long it stood. The postholes indicate the building was in place for hundreds of years with the roof and supports replaced when they rotted.

14th c. shipwreck cannon may be oldest in Europe

A bronze cannon found on the seafloor off Marstrand, Sweden, has been dated to the 14th century, making it the oldest know shipboard cannon in Europe.

The cast copper-alloy cannon was found in the open sea at a depth of about 65 feet by a recreational scuba diver in the summer of 2001. He did not immediately realize that the small, funnel-shaped object less than 19 inches long was an archaeological artifact. When he cottoned on, he reported his find to museum experts. It was expropriated as state property, conserved and entered the collection of the regional Bohuslans museum.

The shipwreck it came from was never found (conditions at the site are not conducive to the long-term survival of wood), but the gun itself surprisingly preserved a key piece of information: a piece of cloth stuck to the inner wall of the powder chamber by copper corrosion materials. It was the remains of a cartouche that held the powder charge. The textile fragment suggests it was loaded and ready to fire when it sank under the waves, which it would not have been if it was cargo rather than ship’s armament.

This bit of cloth made it possible to radiocarbon date the gun, a rare opportunity with early artillery that is sparsely documented and cannot be accurately dated by type. With calibrated results in the range of 1285-1399, it is one of the oldest pieces of European artillery ever to be absolutely dated. Cannons of the Marstrand type were previously thought to date the 15th-16th centuries, as were powder cartouches. This one discovery has redefined the timeline for European ship artillery.

A recent multi-disciplinary study documented the cannon with 3D scanning and analyzed the metal. The team found it was made with a copper alloy containing 14% lead, a high amount that would have made the gun prone to breakage with intensive usage.

“Clearly, the person who cast the cannon did not have the necessary knowledge and understanding of the properties of various copper alloys,” says Staffan von Arbin.

“This shows that the noble art of cannon casting had not yet been fully mastered at that time, and that production was largely based on trial and error.”

The analysis also indicates that the copper ore used in the cannon’s production was mined in present-day Slovakia, while the lead probably came from England or the border region between Poland and the Czech Republic. […]

The new types of firearms developed at this time provided great tactical advantages in battles at sea. But it wasn’t just warships that were armed – during the late Middle Ages merchant ships also started being equipped with cannon more and more often to defend themselves against pirates and other hostile vessels. The study of the Marstrand cannon provides new knowledge and perspectives on the development of this military technology.

The study has been published in the journal The Mariner’s Mirror and can be read in its entirety here.

“Gold find of the century” made in Norway

A treasure hailed as the “gold find of the century in Norway” has been discovered by a metal detectorist in Rennesøy, an island in southwestern Norway. The group of gold bracteates and beads dates to the late Migration Period (375-568 A.D.), and is believed to have been part of a single opulent necklace.

Erlend Bore picked up metal detecting when his physiotherapist and doctor strongly recommended he get outside more to combat the ills of sedentary living. On June 7th, he took his new metal detector out for its first spin. Two months later, he went to Rennesøy. When his detector gave a strong signal, he lifted a clod of earth and saw a glitter that he thought was a wrapper for a chocolate coin. Reader, it was not a chocolate wrapper. Bore scooped it up to take a closer look and when the soil around it fell apart, even more gold beads came out.

He immediately contacted the county archaeologist and sent him a picture of the find. The archaeologist informed him he had found Migration Era gold treasure. The find consists of nine gold bracteates (flat, thin, single-sided medallions that never circulated as actual coins but were often modelled after coins), all of them bearing a stylized horse image, ten gold beads and three gold spiral rings. The total gold weight of the find is just over 100 grams.

Archaeologists believe the gold necklace and spiral rings were buried in the 6th century during a time of conflict, plague and upheaval after a volcanic eruption blocked out of the sun in 535-6 A.D. leading to widespread crop failure and famine. Ole Madsen, director of the Archaeological Museum at the University of Stavanger, called the treasure “the gold find of the century” because it has been that long since so many pieces of gold jewelry have been found together in one place in Norway. The bracteates alone, however, would be sufficient to garner such high praise.

Professor Sigmund Oehrl at the Archaeological Museum is an expert on bracteates and their symbols. Approximately 1,000 golden bracteates have so far been found in Scandinavia. According to him, the gold pendants from Rennesøy are of a specific type that is very rare. They show a horse motif in a hitherto unknown form.

“The motifs differ from most other gold pendants that have been found so far. The symbols on the pendants usually show the god Odin healing the sick horse of his son Balder. In the Migration Period, this myth was seen as a symbol of renewal and resurrection, and it was supposed to give the wearer of the jewelery protection and good health,” says Oehrl.

On the Rennesøy bracteates, however, only the horse is depicted. A somewhat similar horse, depicted together with snake-like monsters, is also found on a pair of gold bracts found in Rogaland and southern Norway.

“On these gold pendants the horse’s tongue hangs out, and its slumped posture and twisted legs show that it is injured. Like the Christian symbol of the cross, which spread in the Roman Empire at exactly this time, the horse symbol represented illness and distress, but at the same time hope for healing and new life,” says Oehrl.

The bracteates, beads and spirals are now being conserved at the Archaeological Museum at the University of Stavanger and will soon go on display. According to Norwegian law, any archaeological object dating before 1537 belongs to the state. The finder and the landowner will split a finder’s fee in an amount determined by the National Antiquities Authority.

10th c. sabretache plate found in Hungary

A cavalry burial containing a rare silver sabretache plate was unearthed in an excavation near the village of Csomád, outside Budapest, Hungary, this July. The artifact consists of a silver exterior plate riveted to an interior bronze plate, and dates to the 10th century Hungarian conquest of the Carpathian Basin.

During this period in Hungary, a hierarchical clan-based system determined what men of rank could wear to signify their position. Soldiers wore ornamented weapons, weapon belts and tools that telegraphed their military ranks, positions and affiliations. The sabretache was a leather pouch that contained the essential tools to make fire: flint, tinder and a carbon steel fire striker. They were worn on the right side of their sword belts and were ornamented with bronze, silver or gold plates, depending on the bearer’s rank and proximity to the prince. Fewer than 30 sabretache plates are known in Hungarian museums.

The find site was first located by a volunteer with the local community archaeology program. Because it was actively under cultivation and subject to occasional metal mining, its archaeological remains were under constant threat. Volunteers and professionals teamed up to excavate it with all due speed.

The team unearthed the grave of a man who died in the mid-10th century. He was a warrior, buried with a horse of which partial remains survive and archery equipment. The grave had been damaged by agricultural works, but the remains were still in unusually good condition. Not only was the metal plate intact, but remnants of the leather strap were as well.

Many other objects were recovered from the grave. They were removed en bloc with their surrounding soil so they could be excavated and conserved in a restoration laboratory. The plate has already been conserved and is now on display at the Ferenczy Museum Center in Szentendre, joining every other known sabretache plate discovered in Hungary in an unprecedented dedicated exhibition.

Rich Merovingian warrior grave found in Ingelheim

Archaeologists excavating an early Medieval cemetery in Ingelheim, Germany, have unearthed the intact grave of Frankish warrior from the 7th century. Found between two looted graves, the warrior managed to escape his neighbors’ fates and keep the rich furnishings buried with him for 1,300 years.

The grave contained the skeletal remains of a man between 30 and 40 years old at the time of death. The position of the shoulders — close together and slightly raised — is known as coffin posture, evidence that the man was buried in a wooden casket of which no traces survive today. He was buried with a full complement of weapons. A spatha (double-edged sword) with a blade 30 inches long (the whole sword including hilt and pommel is 37 inches long) was placed under the deceased’s right arm. The blade is in excellent condition and even retains some of its original flexibility. Elements of a bronze scabbard and the suspension mount or belt also remain in place.

By his left arm was a broad seax (short slashing sword). The blade and bronze rivets from the scabbard survive today. The grave also contained a knife, lance and a shield. This exceptional array includes virtually all of the weaponry in use by the elite warrior class of the era; only a bow is missing to complete the set.

The flat shield boss with a wide rim and the massive design of the seax suggest the burial dates to the 7th century identifying the warrior as Frankish. That preliminary assessment may change once the weapons are cleaned and conserved. There are details of the ornamentation, including what appear to be silver inlays, that are currently obscured by a heavy coating of corrosion materials.

Excavations of the burial ground began in 2015 and come to an end this year. Most of the graves were pillaged centuries ago, so this rich discovery is of great archaeological import. Study of the weapons and analyses of the osteological remains promise to shed new light on Merovingian-era society in Ingelheim.