I recently listened to a BBC History Extra podcast discussing archaeology. Both the host and the guest, a Professor of Archaeology from University College London, expressed their chagrin about the influence on archaeology in recent decades.
Much of this influence has been attributed to "the man in the hat with the whip" - the fictional movie character and swashbuckling archaeologist Indiana Jones, portrayed by Harrison Ford.
Throughout the podcast, much was made of the unrealistic depictions of archaeology in the Indiana Jones movies.
Not only does Indiana destroy nearly every ancient artifact he encounters, but his life is also filled with romance, swashbuckling, and, you know, dueling with Nazis or 800-year-old Crusader Knights.
The learned guest emphasized that archaeology is a patient and meticulous science. An exciting discovery, which might be just a single shard of pottery, could take decades of collaborative effort from a team to uncover.
Outside of movies, it's exceedingly rare for an artifact to be found that reshapes our understanding of a culture, civilization, people, or historical period.
While exceedingly rare, it's not impossible. This is precisely what Ole Ginnerup Schytz accomplished in a field in Denmark in 2020.
The Vindelev Hoard comprises an array of golden artifacts, including Roman coins transformed into pendants, intricate gold jewelry, and decorated discs known as bracteates. Photo: Vejlemuseerne / Vejle Konserveringscenter (CC BY-SA 4.0)
When Ole Ginnerup Schytz tried his luck with a bit of amateur metal detecting, plodding around a field near the once-important Viking town of Jelling, Denmark, making history was the furthest thing from his mind.
His first experience of what some call amateur archaeology and others label a waste of a good afternoon left him speechless.
When the metal detector lit up like a Viking funeral pyre, he began to dig, uncovering a small piece of twisted metal.
"No big deal," he thought, telling Danish TV station TV Syd that he believed he had found "the lid of a herring can" (could that assumption be any more Scandinavian? Bless him!).
Yet when he continued to dig, he hadn't found garbage but had uncovered what would be termed the Vindelev Hoard – more than 22 elaborate golden artifacts, including Roman coins that had been fashioned into pendants, gold jewelry, and decorated golden discs called bracteates.
The nearby town of Jelling was once the political epicenter of Viking Age Denmark – housing a royal court, a palace, and a temple – so it should come as no surprise that some glittering gold had been buried for safekeeping by a local elite or an upwardly mobile Viking.
Upon serious analysis of the hoard, it was determined that the treasure dates back to what modern historians refer to as "The Migration Period," centuries before the Viking Age (c. 750 – 1100 CE).
Within the Vindelev Hoard, one bracteate differentiated itself, its markings suggesting a link to the Norse god, Odin. Photo: Vejlemuseerne / Vejle Konserveringscenter (CC BY-SA 4.0)
German nationalism and the early medieval period
As the tide of nationalism swept across Europe during the 19th century, there was a renewed interest in the region's history.
The German people paired a growing desire for their own nation (realized in 1871) with an analysis and study of the history of their Germanic ancestors.
One period of history that 19th-century German historians viewed as pivotal for development was the time between Late Antiquity and the Early Medieval period, which was dominated by the collapse of the Roman Empire.
The traditional historical view posits that this period witnessed waves of migrations of different peoples into Europe, permeating the boundaries of the Roman Empire.
This led to such a destabilized and insecure environment that Rome eventually collapsed, fragmented, and disintegrated.
At least its Western half did, while its Eastern half, centered in Byzantium (later Constantinople, now modern-day Istanbul), survived another millennium until 1453 CE.
Buried in the hoard that Schytz uncovered back in 2020 were examples of how new civilizations had tried to imitate Rome.
Included amongst the Vindelev hoard were four coins from Rome. The fact that coins from an empire that had recently collapsed were still deemed valuable centuries later speaks volumes about the allure that Rome had over the medieval mind.
In terms of material sophistication, bracteates were seen as being easier to forge and fashion than some of the elaborate jewelry that many Romans had worn.
A bracteate from the Vindelev Hoard, inscribed with "The High One" and adorned with imagery of a man alongside a bird and horse, aligns with recognized symbols of Odin. Photo: Vejlemuseerne / Konserveringscenter Vejle (CC BY-SA 4.0)
Two golden visions of Odin?
Amongst the hoard of glittery treasures, including four recycled Roman coins, were some large bracteates. They were adorned with runic inscriptions and images of birds, horses, and men.
One such bracteate shows a man's head in profile with a bird and a horse below him and is inscribed as "Odin's."
Another similar bracteate discovered at another archaeological dig bears an inscription that has been translated to something akin to "The Dear One." This might sound very familiar. After all, the Norse God Odin was referred to as "The High One" and had a collection of animal companions, including a horse and ravens.
Later scientific analysis has posited that the hoard – which includes the bracteate inscribed as belonging to Odin – was buried, scholars believe, sometime in the 6th century CE. This pushes back the worship of Odin by at least two centuries.
While we know that the Old Norse religion evolved from the earlier spiritual and religious beliefs of Germanic peoples, this represents the earliest known mention of Odin. This significant find suggests that people in this region of Scandinavia worshipped one of the Norse gods much earlier than previously thought.
This discovery, along with a recent finding of a Viking raid on the Estonian island of Salme, has prompted modern historians to reconsider exactly when the Viking Age (c. 750 – 1100 CE) began.
Thanks to Ole Gunnar Schytz and his beginner's luck, historians are now tasked with the intricate challenge of determining precisely when Viking societies first formed, potentially pushing back the start date by centuries.
The Vindelev hoard, as it is now known, holds a prominent position in the National Museum of Denmark – a fitting location for such a nationally significant discovery.
For more information on the hoard, visit the National Museum of Denmark here.
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