Morten Axboe (Independent researcher, Copenhagen)
In December 2020, metal detectorists found a Migration Period gold hoard at Vindelev in East Jutland. Vindelev is c. 10 km north of the city of Vejle and c. 8 km northeast of the well-known site of Jelling with its royal monuments from the tenth century AD. Subsequent excavation by VejleMuseerne (Laursen and Ravn 2022; Ravn 2022) established that the gold objects which had been uncovered were all found in the plough layer. Although the finds had been moved by agricultural activities, most of them were found within a restricted area relating to a Migration Period long-house. Most likely the objects were deposited as a single hoard.
The find consists of four Roman medallions (multipla), 13 bracteates, a pendant with glass inlays, and a scabbard mount; together these objects count for 794 g gold (Axboe 2021). See Figure 25. The Vindelev hoard counts as the first find in Scandinavia with more than one Roman medallion. In addition, apart from the Polish Zagórzyn hoard, the Vindelev hoard is the first recorded hoard which has included both medallions and bracteates. During the period 335-36 to 383 AD, three of the medallions were issued in Trier by Constantine I, Constans, and Gratian, respectively, while the fourth medallion was issued in Thessaloniki by Valentinian I (Horsnæs 2022).
Gold bracteates are generally divided into four types: A-bracteates imitating the imperial portraits of Roman coins, B-bracteates showing one or more persons in full, C-bracteates with a large human head over a more or less horse-like quadruped, and D-bracteates featuring a highly stylized dragon-like creature. Alongside the main motif, A-, B-, and C-bracteates may also show smaller animals, human figures, and symbols (like swastikas and triskelions), as well as inscriptions with runes or imitations of Roman letters.
The central motif of a bracteate was struck with a matrix die (Axboe 2007: 14-25, 142). On many bracteates this was framed by punched border zones. Several bracteates could be produced using the same die. Therefore, when die-identical (or closely-related) bracteates occur in different finds, they form important evidence of connections between them.
The Vindelev hoard includes nine A-bracteates (of which two are die-identical) and four C-bracteates (of which one—Vindelev x11—is die-identical with a bracteate found near Odense on Funen (IK 31 Bolbro-C)). Central and eastern Funen are the areas in Denmark which are richest in gold from the Migration Period, and may possibly have been the area where the gold bracteates were invented. There are, however, several other connections between Funen and the Vindelev find, which may modify this assumption.
Normally, an A-bracteate features only one ‘imperial’ bust. Nevertheless, a small group of very early dies show double portraits with the two ‘emperors’ sharing cloaks and brooches. Two of the Vindelev bracteates (x10 and the fragmented x12+x20+x22) are of this type, which had previously been known only from central and eastern Funen (Axboe 2021, Fig. 7-9). See Figure 26.
Figure 25. The Vindelev hoard. Photo by Vejlemuseerne.
Figure 26. Vindelev x20. X-ray by Signe Nygaard, Konserveringscenter Vejle. Not to scale.
Figure 27. Vindelev x9 with mail and drinking horn. Photo by Vejlemuseerne. Not to scale.
Several of the Vindelev bracteates present new and innovative designs. The A-bracteates x9 and the two die-identical A-bracteates x3 and x14 all show the bust with an unusually patterned dress, possibly representing a chain or scale armour. See Figure 27. On x9 the ‘emperor’ has a drinking horn in his hand, paralleled only on bracteates found in England (Behr 2011 and unpublished finds). Vindelev x1 features an unusual, beaded dress, possibly inspired by the embroidered consular robe (Figure 28), the ‘braided’ fingers in x1 and the knotted ring in x9 and x14 being Nordic interpretations of the consular mappa (comp. Axboe 2021 Fig. 3 right and Laursen 2022a Fig. 3b).
Figure 28. Vindelev x1. Photo by Vejlemuseerne. Not to scale.
Figure 29. At left, Vindelev x 7 (Photo by Vejlemuseerne). At right, IK 691 Kristianslund (Photo by Nationalmuseet).
Vindelev x7 presents a rather enigmatic design (see Figure 29, left), dominated by a large human bust with two arms. Under the chin there is an open ring with knotted ends, comparable to the Celtic torques used by the Romans as military distinctions. One hand holds a quadruped with a very long tongue, while the other brandishes a T-shaped object crowned by a small creature with a humanoid head, arms and legs affixed to a fish-like body. The small creature has an open ring in one hand and a small ball in the other. Placed in front of it is a small tree with six branches. A very close parallel was found 2018 at Kristianslund near Odense (Figure 29, right). Otherwise, the torques is known only from a find from Zealand (IK 299 Maglemose/Gummersmark-A). More generally related are some bracteates from east Zealand which also exhibit a dominate person holding up smaller figures (Axboe 2017).
Figure 30. Vindelev x4. X-ray by Signe Nygaard, Konserveringscenter Vejle.
The C-bracteate x4 forms a very important link to Funen and a valuable contribution to the interpretation of the bracteates. See Figure 30. It is very similar to the bracteate IK 58, which was found somewhere in Funen before 1689; only minute details reveal that the bracteates are not die-identical. Under the head of the quadruped, they both have the runic inscription houaR, which can be read as ‘The High One’, a praise name used for Oðinn in later sources, thus linking the motif to this god, who is central in Karl Hauck’s interpretation of the gold bracteates (e.g. Hauck 2011,1-2; Heizmann 2012; critical Laursen 2022b; Wicker and Williams 2013). Although the other Vindelev inscriptions have not yet been studied closely, they may eventually present more links with Oðinn.
According to Hauck, Oðinn is the dominating figure in bracteate iconography. On the A-bracteates, he is shown as the lord of the gods, his position embellished by Roman imperial regalia like the diadem, the circular brooch, and the consul’s robe. All of the large human heads on the Vindelev bracteates wear diadems, while the consular dress may be seen on x1 and possibly x19. Circular brooches are found on x19 and with the double busts on x10 and x20. Germanic insignia may be found in the long hair (which may be plaited or knotted), as seen on x4, x9, x13, and x17 (Axboe 2007: 100-103, 152).
Thus, it seems obvious that, like other A- and C-bracteates, the Vindelev bracteates depict a ruler by means of well-established Roman imperial iconography. Though it may be debated whether said ruler was divine or mundane, I tend to follow Hauck in associating him with Oðinn. But what, then, about the double busts? Though some attempts have been made, thus far there seems to be no convincing Nordic parallel for the Dioscuri (the Divine Twins) found in many other religions (Andrén 2020). Do these bracteates represent earthly rulers – shared kingship is known from the early Viking Danish kingdom – or possibly (semi)divine ancestors? After all, we are near the alleged homelands of Hengist and Horsa, the mythic leaders of the Anglo-Saxon invasion (Laursen 2022a: 13). Be that as it may, the double-bust bracteates belong to the start of bracteate production and seem to have rapidly disappeared from the bracteate iconography repertoire.
The weight of an average bracteate is between 2 and 7 g. The weight of the 13 Vindelev bracteates is 576 g, equalling about 100 ordinary bracteates. This illustrates the unusual size and weight of the Vindelev bracteates. Actually, the folded-up bracteate (x10) is the largest bracteate yet known with a diameter of 13.8 cm and a weight of 123.7 g. In this it indisputably surpasses the previous champion IK 11 Åsum-C from Scania, whose diameter was 12.3 cm and weighed in at 100.3 g. In fact, of the 10 largest bracteates known, five belong to the Vindelev hoard: x10, x17, x20, x9, and x19. This larger size makes room for intricate punched borders with unusual designs, including birds, animals and human faces. Also, six bracteates and the large pendant have large and exquisite ‘deluxe’ loops with bulbs, ridges and filigree added to the tube. This again is extraordinary! Previously, only two bracteates with ‘deluxe’ loops were known from present-day Denmark. The original quality is very high, and it is astonishing to find rather clumsy repairs on some of the bracteates, including patches roughly riveted to the disc which were also (in some cases) even placed on the front of the bracteate. It seems as if the artistic and economic ambitions of the bracteate makers and their patrons were greater than their workmanship.
Thus, the Vindelev bracteates are larger, heavier, and more richly adorned than most other finds. Both they and the extraordinary number of Roman medallions must have been in the possession of people of very high status. This surmise is further supported by two objects which have not yet been discussed: the circular pendant x8 and the scabbard mouthpiece x18. The pendant is larger than usual, has a large ornamental triangle below the ‘deluxe’ loop and red inlays in the triangle and around the centre (where a larger inlay has been lost). The scabbard mount is an excellent piece of work with intricate interlacings with animal heads (Laursen and Høilund Nielsen 2022). Only 17 other such mounts are known—all with exquisite workmanship—and they must have belonged to the absolute upper echelons of Migration Period society.
Chronologically, the hoard is enigmatic. As mentioned, it seems to be a closed deposition, and yet the objects span around 200 years. The medallions were minted during the middle half of the fourth century AD. The bracteates are all rather early (some very early!); I would date them c. 450-490 AD. The scabbard mount can only have been made some decades into the sixth century. Thus, the objects fall into three separate chronological groups. Only the scabbard mount may indicate a deposition in connection with the events of 536 AD and the following years (Axboe 1999, 2007: 117-123, 156-158). This leaves us still in a bit of a conundrum. Why, then, are there no D-bracteates or late C-bracteates, like in so many other late hoards from Jutland?
The place-name of Vindelev is of a type which is older than the Viking Age and may be interpreted as “Winde’s estate” (Ravn 2022: 8). Until the hoard was found, there were no indications of any special finds in the area. The elite character of the hoard immediately raises the question of whether Vindelev was a predecessor of the 10th c. royal site at Jelling, which lies only a short 8 km away. Also, the relationship to the well-known central place at Gudme in east Funen, which was established around 200 AD and which flourished into the 6th c. (Jørgensen 2011), calls for further discussion. Vindelev obviously was a site with great wealth and an imaginative iconographic spirit, as evidenced by the early and innovative bracteate designs, as well as far-reaching connections, especially to Funen, but also to continental gold hoards (Horsnæs 2022). Was Vindelev a superregionally important centre of power? Was it an ally or a competitor to the Gudme centre? The investigations at Vindelev have only just begun and will hopefully be continued via collaboration between VejleMuseerne, the National Museum of Denmark and other institutions.
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Laursen, K.O., 2022b. C-brakteaterne fra Vindelev. Skalk 2022/4: 14-17.
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Laursen, K.O. and M. Ravn, 2022. Guldfundet fra Vindelev og verdens største brakteat/The Gold Hoard from Vindelev and the World’s Largest Bracteate. In M. Ravn and C. Lindblom (eds), Magt og guld. Vikinger i øst/Power and Gold. Vikings in the East. Vejlemuseerne and Turbine.
Ravn, M., 2022. Guldskatten fra Vindelev. Skalk 2022/2: 8-9.
Wicker, N. and Henrik Williams 2013. Bracteates and runes. Futhark 3: 151–213.
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