Mari Ingelin Heskestad from Bergen, Norway, discovered the precious gold ring in July 2022 and gifted it to be displayed at the University of Bergen.
The find sheds light on the power of Viking Age rulers in the area as well as the prevalence and importance of gold in the period.
How was the ring discovered?
The large ring in a twisted gold style characteristic of the Viking Age was found by Ms. Heskestad in a bundle of jewelry that she purchased in an online auction.
According to a local Bergen newspaper, the ring had been delivered to the auction company a year before Ms. Heskestad purchased the collection.
Ironically, it was not the 1000-year-old gold Viking ring that enticed her to buy the bundle, but rather one of the other pieces. However, as soon as she received the jewelry, the ring instantly caught her attention.
Ms. Heskestad said, "It was bright and gold. It looked very special but was roughly made."
After realizing that she was now in possession of something extraordinary, Ms. Heskestad alerted the University of Bergen.
Archaeologists there then analyzed the ring and revealed that it was a gold ring from the early Viking Age, coming from perhaps as early as 550 CE. The university has put the ring on display before it is conserved there indefinitely.
What do we know about the ring?
The ring found by Ms. Heskestad weighs 11 grams and is speculated to have belonged to a man because of its size and weight.
According to University of Oslo archaeologist Unn Pedersen, the ring is similar in style to previously discovered rings from similar time periods in the Viking Age contexts.
Speaking to Live Science, she said: "It's from the Viking Age, of a specific type that has this combination of a thick and a thin rod that are merged and twisted."
This method of twisting metal in jewelry was common in the late Iron Age in Northern Europe, as it reduced the need for an intensive hammering of the ring. The softness of gold made this process easier.
Whilst the style of the ring means that we can securely date it to the late Iron Age, its geographic origin is a bit more ambiguous because of the unlikely journey the ring took to reach Ms. Heskestad.
Similar twisted gold rings have been found elsewhere in Norway and in Friesland in The Netherlands, indicating that these rings were spread across the Viking diaspora, reflecting their prized status as a luxury trade good.
Though its origin is uncertain, the kind of person who may have worn it is clear. Ms. Pederson stated that finger rings were rare in the Viking Age, especially ones made of gold, so this would have been reserved for the richest and most powerful people in society, likely a powerful Norse chief or king.
The Viking Age ring was discovered in a pile of jewelry - highlighted in red. Photo: Vestland County
Gold and rings in Viking Age society
At the time of the Viking Age, gold items were concentrated in areas of political power. They are most often found in the burials of powerful nobles alongside other luxury items such as bronze vessels and glass beads.
High-quality gold jewelry serves as an indication of the hierarchical nature of Viking Age Norwegian society. The scale of the burial mounds where they are found is another testament to the power of these Viking Age rulers.
The earliest gold ornaments in Scandinavia were gold coins and medallions called bracteates imported from the Roman and Byzantine empires between the fifth to seventh centuries CE. These were often altered to fit Norse culture, sometimes depicting figures from Norse mythology.
However, in the Viking Age, most jewelry was fashioned from cheaper bronze or silver, so gold jewelry is an important find.
Rings themselves were important status symbols. They weren't just worn on fingers, with neck rings (torques) and arm rings being popular as well.
The 10th-century trader and diplomat Ahmad ibn Fadlan described the symbolism of neck rings in a settlement of Rus' Vikings.
He wrote that "Around their neck, they each wear torques of gold and silver, for every man, as soon as he accumulates 10,000 dirhams (Arabian silver coins) has a torque made for his wife. When he has 20,000, he has two torques made, and so on. Every time he increases his wealth by 10,000, he adds another torque to what his wife already possesses so that one woman may have many torques around her neck."
Rings were also important symbols of oaths and promises, with many important oaths in sagas being sworn in the presence of rings in various forms. Rings also have significant ties to the structure of a North Sea Society in the Viking Age.
Without a centralized bureaucracy, Viking Age rulers and elites relied on networks of personal ties and loyalty, which were maintained through ritual feasts and the distribution of wealth. One word used for a generous gift-giving lord in Old English is beaga brytta or "ring-giver."
The great Old English poem Beowulf highlights the importance of rings in this context: "[King Hrothgar] did not leave unfulfilled his oath:
rings he dealt out, and treasure at the ale-feast." (Beowulf ll. 80-81).
However, these may not have been finger rings, but we can assume that all rings carried similar weight and importance in Viking Age society.
A finger ring that has particular importance in Norse culture is the Andvaranaut of Völsunga saga, which was stolen by Loki from the shape-shifter Andvari and then cursed to lead to the death of anyone who possessed it.
Once the great hero Sigurðr claimed the ring from the dragon Fáfnir, it brought great destruction and calamity to his family and loved ones. This ring may also have inspired the One Ring from the Lord of the Rings.
Rings of all shapes and sizes were evidently important to the Vikings, and Ms. Heskestad's gold ring carries a legacy of Viking mythology, society, and power.
Mari Ingelin Heskestad contacted experts at the Vestland County section for cultural heritage after she noticed the ring. Photo: Vestland County
This article was written thanks to the support of subscribers to The Viking Herald's Facebook page. Do you enjoy our work? You can SUBSCRIBE here or via our Facebook page. You'll get access to exclusive content and behind-the-scenes access.
Feel free to reach out to discuss potential stories that may be in the public interest. You can reach us via email at email@example.com with the understanding that the information you provide might be used in our reporting and stories.