First-time treasure hunter Ole Ginnerup Schytz had only been out with his new metal detector for a few hours when he stumbled onto an astounding discovery: a stash of 1,500-year-old gold artifacts dated to the Iron Age. Now, experts have deemed the find—made in a field near the town of Jelling in southwestern Denmark last December—one of the largest and most important in Danish history.
Schytz recalls hearing the device activate, then moving aside soil to uncover a small, bent piece of metal.
“It was scratched and covered in mud,” he tells Steffen Neupert of Danish broadcast station TV Syd, per a translation by Sarah Cascone of Artnet News. “I had no idea, so all I could think of was that it looked like the lid of a can of herring.”
The amateur metal detectorist had actually unearthed what turned out to be the first of 22 pieces of sixth-century gold jewelry. In total, the trove weighed just over two pounds.
Speaking with TV Syd, as quoted by Felix Allen of the Sun, Schytz calls the find “the epitome of pure luck.”
He adds, “Denmark is [16,621 square miles], and then I happened to choose to put the detector exactly where this find was.”
Months after Schytz’s chance discovery, the Vejlemuseerne in Jutland has finally revealed the ancient treasures to the public.
“This is the biggest find that has come in the 40 years I have been at the National Museum [of Denmark],” archaeologist Peter Vang Petersen tells TV Syd, per Artnet News. “We have to go back to the 16th and 18th centuries to find something similar.”
According to a statement, the haul consists primarily of bracteates—medallions that were popular in northern Europe during the Migration Period (roughly 300 to 700 C.E.). Women would have worn the pendants, which were often inscribed with magical symbols or runes, for protection.
Many of the symbols seen on the newly unearthed bracteates are unfamiliar to experts, Mads Ravn, director of research at the Vejle museums, tells Agence France-Presse (AFP). Interpreting them will help shed light on the little-understood societies that inhabited the region prior to the Vikings.
“It is the symbolism represented on these objects that makes them unique, more than the quantity found,” says Ravn.
One of the medallions depicts the Norse god Odin and appears to be based on similar Roman jewelry that celebrated emperors as gods, reports TV Syd.
“Here we see Nordic mythology in its infancy,” says Vang Petersen, as quoted by the Sun. “The Scandinavians have always been good at getting ideas from what they saw in foreign countries, and then turning it into something that suits them.”
Older artifacts found in the cache include gold coins from the Roman Empire that were converted into jewelry. One depicts Constantine the Great, who ruled between 306 and 337 C.E. The coin’s presence suggests that Jelling, known to be a cradle of the Viking civilization between the 8th and 12th centuries, was a center of power with trade links across the European continent, according to Artnet News.
The objects’ immaculate craftsmanship points to their original owner’s probable high status.
“Only one member of society’s absolute top [would have] been able to collect a treasure like the one found here,” says Ravn in the statement.
When experts excavated the site where Schytz found the hoard, they discovered the ruins of a village longhouse. Without the amateur treasure hunter’s discovery, “there was nothing that could [have made] us predict that an unprecedented warlord or great man lived here, long before the kingdom of Denmark arose in the following centuries,” Ravn adds.
Archaeologists posit that the gold was buried to protect it from invaders, or as a last-ditch offering to the gods. The find is dated to around 536, when a volcanic eruption in Iceland covered the sky in ash and caused widespread famine in Scandinavia. Other gold troves found in the region, including a group of 32 artifacts unearthed on the island of Hjarnø, have been dated to around this same time.