One of the Oldest Depictions of Falconry in Scandinavia Is Discovered

The 800-year-old carved figure holding a falcon was found at a dig site in Norway

carved wooden figure of person with crown and falcon on right arm
Unearthed in Norway, this crowned figure with a falcon on its right arm dates to the 13th century, and may be the oldest depiction of falconry discovered in Scandinavia. Ann-Ingeborg Floa Grindhaug and Jani Causevic/NIKU

Archaeologists in Norway have discovered a medieval carving of a person wearing a crown and holding a falcon, reports Stacy Libertore of the Daily Mail. Made from animal bone, researchers say the figure may be one of the oldest artifacts in Scandinavia depicting falconry, a sport where  one uses trained birds of prey to hunt wild game.

Ann-Ingeborg Floa Grindhaug, an archaeologist with the Norwegian Institute for Cultural Heritage Research (NIKU), discovered the artifact at a dig in the park at Gamle Oslo, a historic borough of Oslo, Norway’s capital, with history that can be traced back around 1,000 years.

Likely made from antler, the carving is nearly three inches long and hollow near the bottom, indicating it may have been the handle to a knife or tool, say the researchers in a NIKU statement. The excavation was conducted earlier this month at the Medieval Park project in the old section of Oslo.

The artifact depicts a crowned figure with a falcon resting on its right arm. The bird’s head is bent down toward the falconer’s left hand, which experts note may be holding food. The falcon’s eye is a drilled hole while its plumage is made with an engraved lattice pattern, per the statement.

Based on the clothing and hairstyle of the figure, scientists date the carving to around the 13th century. The presence of a crown shows that the carving may have been modeled after a person of royalty.

“There is no doubt that the figure wears a crown,” says Kjartan Hauglid, a NIKU art historian and researcher, in the statement. “But it is harder to decide if it is a king or a queen.”

Because both men and women practiced falconry in the medieval era, determining the figure’s gender is difficult, says Hauglid, but what appears to be hair or head linen on the carving reveals that it could be female since that was the style of married women at the time.

“It was probably made at a workshop in Oslo and is among the most important artifacts found in Oslo in recent years,” adds Hauglid. “We only know a handful of similar finds with falcons from northern Europe, several depicting women.”

Per the NIKU statement, a similar knife shaft was found in Oslo in the 1920s. Although little information exists about that artifact, the new find at Medieval Park is believed to be older.

archaeologist holding up carved wooden figure of crowned individual
Ann-Ingeborg Floa Grindhaug holds the crowned carved figure holding a falcon she found in below-zero conditions at a dig in Oslo, Norway. Solveig Thorkildsen/NIKU

Falconry was a popular sport among nobility and the wealthy in medieval Europe. The birds were very expensive, and it was even more costly to train them. Many Norwegian falcons were gifted by nobles to royal courts throughout Europe, Hauglid tells Banner Leon of Spark Chronicles.

“The cheapest price for an untrained Norwegian falcon in the 13th century was 240 silver longcross pennies,” says Ragnar Orten Lie, a regional archaeologist with the University of Oslo and a falconry expert, in the NIKU statement, “which is the same as the price of 4 to 6 cows or 1 to 2 horses. These birds had a 70 percent mortality rate.”

The archeologists believe the carving may depict Håkon IV, a king of Norway from 1217 to 1263. He was active in falconry and was known to give falcons as gifts, per Heritage Daily. The royal helped bring about the “golden age” of Norway, modeling his style of governing after European court culture. He extended the Norwegian Empire, establishing rule over Greenland and Iceland in 1261 to 1262. To build alliances, he often gave falcons to his newfound friends in Europe.

Although there is strong evidence the figure may be Håkon IV, experts also note the figure’s crown includes three visible holes, which may have held rings of gold or silver, or been used to fasten a “duke-garland,” a wreath of roses. Håkon V, who ruled from 1299 to 1319, is often depicted wearing such a coronet.

“The artists at the time were very conservative,” Hauglid tells Science Norway. “They often copied each other. So we have a margin of error of several generations.”

Per SPOR, Orten Lie writes that all nobility in Europe likely owned birds of prey during the Middle Ages. “In Sweden, there are 40 known finds of birds of prey from graves that date to the years between 500 and 900,” he writes. Falconry was popular in Sweden particularly during the early Iron Age, he adds, and it’s likely the same was true in Norway. Norwegian kings were active in falconry up until the end of the 14th century and also had professional falcon catchers at their service.