Ancient Norse Elites Buried These Gold Pendants as Sacrifices to the Gods

The 1,500-year-old bracteates—found in a field in southeastern Norway—depict animal and human figures

Gold bracteate
The gold bracteates served as a status symbol for sixth-century Scandinavian elites. Margrete F. Simonsen / Cultural History Museum

In the sixth century A.D., elite individuals in southeastern Norway buried seven gold pendants in a field as a sacrifice to the gods. The artifacts, known as bracteates, feature images of Norse gods and stylized animal figures, reports Ida Irene Bergstrøm for Science Norway.

A private metal detectorist and archaeologists from Viken County discovered four of the bracteates in the municipality of Råde in 2019. The University of Oslo’s Museum of Cultural History found the other three while conducting a follow-up excavation at the site in 2020. Only one similar pendant has been found in Norway over the past 70 years, according to the archaeologists.

Overall, researchers have found about 900 bracteates to date, 160 of them in Norway. The artifacts are specific to Scandinavia, though some have been found in Germany and England, presumably as imports from northern countries.

Bracteates are thin and heavily decorated. Per the Metropolitan Museum of Art, they represent a Scandinavian take on Roman and Byzantine portrait medallions, which emperors presented as gifts to important people. Fifth- and sixth-century Scandinavians wore the pendants to convey high status or kept them as treasure.

“People in Scandinavia took ownership of a status item from the Roman culture, gave it a Norse look and made it their own,” say archaeologists Jessica Leigh McGraw, Margrete Figenschou Simonsen and Magne Samdal of the Museum of Cultural History in a statement, per a translation by Science Norway.

As ARTnews’ Jesse Holth reports, only wealthy, high-status people had the means to sacrifice such precious objects.

“There is little doubt that these were items connected to aristocratic communities within a Germanic elite in Scandinavia,” the researchers say in the statement.

Ancient Norse Elites Buried These Gold Pendants as Sacrifices to the Gods
The gold pendants represent a Scandinavian take on Roman and Byzantine portrait medallions. Elin Storbekk / Cultural History Museum

The Råde horde includes four artifacts identified as C-type bracteates, meaning they’re stamped with an image of a human riding a horse with horns. The researchers say this figure may represent the god Odin riding Sleipnir, his eight-legged horse, or Odin’s son Hermod riding to the realm of the dead.

The other three bracteates are classified as D-type and depict animal figures. The researchers say these animal motifs probably contain symbolism that they can’t fully interpret. But the finds did help the team date the horde, since D-type bracteates only began appearing in the sixth century.

Ancient people buried the cache during Europe’s Migration Period, after the fall of the Western Roman Empire. Between 536 and 540 A.D., volcanic eruptions disrupted the climate in much of Europe and led to famines that were followed by plague epidemics. The researchers say it’s unclear if the treasures were buried before or after these calamities, but offerings appear to have become larger and more common over the sixth century.

“The Gods needed pleasing,” the archaeologists say. “In a time of bad years and insecurities, people may have felt a heightened need to try and avoid dangers and seek protection.”

Researchers are continuing to study the bracteates at the museum, looking for ruins or symbols that may be hidden by bends in the gold. With powerful microscopes, they’ve discovered traces of wear on some of the objects, suggesting their use before they were buried.

The team is looking for signs of how the pendants were made and who crafted them. Comparing the objects to others found elsewhere in northern Europe could also yield information about networks among the region’s elites.