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Gold diggers: Buried treasure shows Vikings hoarded precious metals

USA TODAY logo USA TODAY 13/09/2017 Traci Watson

Metal-detector enthusiasts and archaeologists have uncovered roughly three pounds of gold from the field. © Nick Schaadt, Museum of Sonderskov Metal-detector enthusiasts and archaeologists have uncovered roughly three pounds of gold from the field. A Danish farm field has yielded a priceless harvest: a buried treasure of Viking gold necklaces, arm rings and other precious objects that could help shed light on the relationships among the Viking elite.

Metal-detector enthusiasts and archaeologists have uncovered roughly three pounds of gold from the field, almost all of it discovered in the last 18 months. The cache, known as the Fæsted hoard, is the second-largest known haul of Viking gold and the biggest in Denmark.

The find shows that the king who originally owned the hoard was “filthy rich,” says curator Lars Grundvad of Denmark’s Sønderskov Museum, who is studying the hoard. “It raises the question, where did they get all this gold?”

Despite the image of the Vikings as thuggish brutes, many of the golden objects are exquisitely worked. There are bracelets made of gold strands twisted together, gold-and-crystal pendants and a unique brooch from which delicate gold chains dangle. There are also silver bracelets, gold beads and fragments of golden jewelry hacked into bits to serve as currency.

No inscriptions accompany the hoard to reveal its history. But Viking-Age histories provide a clue: Kings evidently showered sumptuous gifts on local chiefs to build alliances.

The style of some of the jewelry connects it to the dynasty of Viking King Harald Bluetooth, Grundvad says. The nature of the metal also hints at a royal connection. Most Viking treasure is made of silver. As a far more expensive material, gold “shows status,” Grundvad says.

But who was the recipient of such a lavish gift? One possibility is the family of a high-ranking local chief named Ravnunge-Tue, which translates loosely to “raven youth.” Near the hoard’s burial site stand ceremonial stones inscribed with Ravnunge-Tue’s name, signifying his wealth and stature.

The treasure was buried no later than 970, according to dates on coins found in the hoard, and Ravnunge-Tue lived at roughly the same time, Grundvad says.

Perhaps he hid his gold underground for safe keeping, but it’s also possible he was driven by fear. A burial date of 970 is near the time that German forces invaded Denmark from the south, laying waste to the border wall and an important town.

The hoard “tells us quite a lot about the very, very early years of Denmark as a nation,” Grundvad says. Studying the treasure will help reveal how Viking rulers bought loyalty and control, a process central to the founding of the Danish state.

The hoard “is of great significance,” agrees Charlotta Lindblom, curator of archaeology at Denmark’s Vejle Museums. “The level of craftsmanship is extraordinary, as is the value of the gold,” she says, adding that she agrees that the treasure was probably bestowed to cement a political tie.

A necklace and pendants from the hoard were found more than a century ago, but searches since then came up empty. One group of metal-detector users surveyed the field and told Grundvad it was just a “dead spot,” he says.

Then, in early 2016, a second group of metal-detector enthusiasts called Team Rainbow Power took a look. Within 10 minutes, they’d literally struck gold, and the field has continued to produce new pieces of loot ever since.

“When we found the first bracelet, we felt that we had found gold at the end of the rainbow,” Team Rainbow Power member Marie Aagaard Larsen said after discovering the first pieces of the hoard. “But when more bracelets appeared, it became almost unreal.”

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