Roman and Mediaeval History, Illlustrated Travel Journals, Mediaeval Literature, Geology


22.2.16
  Shiny Things from Viking Times - The Gold Treasure of Hiddensee: The Historical Context

On November 13, 1872, a severe northeastern gale swept over the island of Hiddensee, causing a flood that hit the flat southern part of the island that had been deforested since the Thirty Years War, destroyed several fishing villages of reed thatched wattle and daub cots, and broke the island in two parts by washing away some of the land. But it turned out the flood also brought to light something that had lain hidden in a former bog which had long dried up for a thousand years. Something shiny.

Six of the ten gold pendants found on Hiddensee between 1872-74

The story of the find and its successive acquirement by the Provincial Museum for Lesser Pomerania and Rügen, as the Historical Museum Stralsund was then called, is a bit garbled and mixed with legend. The most likely variant is that the pieces were discovered separately, partly through planned search at the site of the first find, partly due to a second flood in 1874, and sold separately as well, though in some cases there may have been a time lapse between the finding and selling of items.

(left: Hiddensee Treasure - the complete set of fibula, ten large, and four small 'intermediate' pendants)

There are two reasons: for one, albeit it technically was a hoard find (see below), the inhabitants of Hiddensee wanted to make sure they could claim it as flotsam, because in that case they had a right to the treasure and the money. A hoard find would have belonged to the owner of the land, the Holy Spirit Monastery Stralsund. The second reason was likely that the finders wanted to make sure they got a fair price. Fortunatly for them, the director of the museum, Rudolf Baier, who immediately recognised the Viking craftmanship, was willing to collect whatever the fishermen found and paid handsomely. A few pieces sold to other people were later gifted to the museum to complete the set.

The first piece to be sold was one of the larger cross shaped pendants which goodwife Striesow had found 'at the beach near her garden after the storm'. The goldsmith Petschler sold it to the district's president Count Behr-Negendank in March 1873 (the count later gave the piece to the museum). Striesow's son-in-law, the sail maker Linsen, searched the beach and found seven more pieces which he sold to Baier in June 1873. Another woman found a smaller cross pendant and one of the intermediate pieces which she sold to a goldsmith in August. The rest of the finds was sold to Baier in 1874 after the February flood. He spent 2257 Mark on the various pieces, money the poor fishermen could well use restore their homes and repair the rift in the island the flood had caused.

The exact site of the find remains obscure; we only know it was located near the village of Neuendorf on the western side, at the Baltic Sea coast. Baier assumed the pendants and other pieces had been stored in at least two clay jugs - the double bended neck ring and the lack of sand or other remains stuck between the filigree point at such a preservation - and been deposed in a former bog. Traces of the jugs have not been found, but one can imagine the fisherfolk was looking for gold, not potshards. And if they found a jar, they may have 'forgotten' to mention it because of the hoard versus flotsam thing, and one can't blame them.

Hiddensee, the Baltic Sea coast

We can't say for sure if the treasure is complete, but the existing pieces make for an impressive set: A neck ring of 44 cm length (and 13.5 cm diametre) made of four entwined wires, a fibula of 8 cm diametre, six larger cross shaped pendants of about 7 cm length, four smaller cross pendants of about 5 cm length, and four 'intermediate' pendants of 2 cm length. The weight of the gold is 598.2 gram and the purity between 93% and 97% which is very high. All pieces are masterfully crafted in filigree and bead work, and date to the second half of the 10th century (1). I will get back to the craftmanship and production of those pieces in a second post.

Hiddensee Treasure - the fibula

The treasure dates most likely to the time of Harald Bluetooth and may have been commissioned by himself or someone else sufficiently rich and important to pay for the material and craftmanship. The finds of jewelry of the Hiddensee-style concentrate on Denmark proper, southern Sweden and Norway, Haithabu / Hedeby and the Pomeranian Baltic Sea coast, all places under Danish control at the time of Harald Bluetooth. The comparative dating of such finds points at the second half of the 10th century. Albeit we will not likely ever by able to say for sure who owned the jewelry and who deposited it in a bog on Hiddensee island, there are a few arguments in favour of a connection with King Harald.

(right: Hiddensee Treasure - the neck ring, fibula and some pendants)

Harald Bluetooth, born ~AD 920, followed his father Gorm onto the Danish throne probably in 936 (2). Harald accepted King Otto I of the Germans (the later Otto the Great) as liege lord after he lost a battle about the possession of the Jutland peninsula in 948. Harald became Christian and supported Otto and his bishops in the Christianization of Scandinavia - the first bishoprics in Denmark were founded during his reign. In 950, he founded Jomsburg (Jume) at the Baltic Sea coast, seat of the famous Jomsvikings. The localisation is disputed, but it must have been somewhere between the Darß peninsula west of Stralsund and the Oder river outfall (3).

After the death of Håkon the Good in 961 by the hand of his nephews (sons of his brother Erik Bloodaxe), Harald snatched southern Norway and became king there as well in 970, forcing Erik's sons to become his vassals (4).

Harald married in second marriage Tove, the daughter of the Abodrite king Mistivoy (the Abodrite were a Slavic tribe settling along the Baltic Sea coast from the Schleswig peninsula to the Oder). Mistivoy was another pagan king who had accepted the Christian faith and vassalty to the King Otto of the Germans in 965.

Harald's son from his first marriage, Sven Forkbeard, remained a pagan and tried to oust daddy. He was supported by the Jomsvikings. The conflict culminated in a sea battle at Helgenes near Bornhom. Harald was hit by an arrow and badly wounded. He escaped with some faithful retainers to Pomerania where he sought shelter with his father-in-law Mistivoy. That brought him close to the Rügen and Hiddensee islands. Harald died from his wound in exile in 986 (5). His body was brought to Roskilde and buried in the church he had built there.

The flat southern part of Hiddensee (now partly reforested) seen from the lagoon

Since the jewelry was made for someone of high rank, and most likely had been worn by a woman (the neck ring is too small for a man and the pendants would make for a pectorale-style set a woman might wear), it is a possible scenario that Tove was the owner of the set. She may have fled together with her husband and for some reason decided to bury the treasure on Hiddensee island (6).

The landscape near Neuendorf / Hiddensee from the lagoon side

There is scarce proof for settlement on Hiddensee in the 10th century, and what traces we have concentrate on the land at the foot of the Dornbusch hill in the northern part. A forest of beech, oak and alder covered most of the island, with a concentration of alder on the wet ground in the flat parts where also some lakes and bogs could be found between the dunes. It likely was one of the bogs that served as hiding place for the treasure. A map from 1835 still shows two small lakes and a bog near Neuendorf, fifty years before the discovery of the treasure.

The neighbour island Rügen was more densely populated in the 10th century. The predominant population was Slavic, but there were contacts, both peaceful and belligerent, with the Vikings, esp. from Denmark, during the 9th to 12th centuries. Some other shiny things of Viking work have been found in the area, which puts the Hiddensee Treasure into a historical context of Slavic-Scandinavian-German contacts. The style and craftmanship connect the treasure to Haithabu / Hedeby (7) and other southern Scandinavian trade and craft centres, as the next post will show.

View from the Dornbusch hill to the sea coast

Footnotes
1) My photos are of high quality replica made in Mainz in 1990. The originals at the time were in a safe. They are exhibited in Stralsund since December 2015, but hidden behind two inches of armoured glass, which would make photographing more difficult.
2) Most sources have 936, but dendrochronological dating of the church Harald built for his father in Jellinge point at 958. I think the first date is correct because it was Harald who accepted Otto as liegelord in 948. The church may have been built several years after Gorm's death.
3) Jume / Jomsburg is often likened with the legendary Vineta, one of the sunken cities - like Kêr Ys in Brittany or Cantre'r Gwaelod in Wales.
4) Erik Bloodaxe had been married to Harald Bluetooth' sister Gunnhild, so his sons were Harald's nephews as well. Gotta love those intertwined family connections.
5) The date is not undisputed since the sagas and chronicles (esp. Adam of Bremen) give contradictory information, but the most likely variant.
6) Another suggested historical connection is the battle of Svolder (AD 1000) where Harald Bluetooth's son-in-law Olaf Tryggvasson fell. Its site is unknown; there are several candidates from Rügen to the Öresund. But even if the battle took place near Rügen, it would not explain how the treasure came to be buried in Hiddensee any better than the connection with Harald Bluetooth's death in Jume.
7) A whole set of jewelmaking tools has been dug out of the former harbour in Haithabu in the 1970ies. I took some photos of those when I visited the museum.

Literature
B. Armburster, H. Eilbracht: Wikingergold auf Hiddensee. Rostock, 2010
 
Comments:
So was it common to hide things in a bog? I'm familiar with the finding of things in bogs, but I thought that was mostly accidental. Or for nefarious purposes, like dead bodies.
 
Constance, most bog finds are indeed sacrifices - human and mostly weapons which are destroyed before they are deposed - but bogs are a good hiding place, too. None of the jewelry has been damanged except for the neck ring which was bent to fit in a jug. Therefore the find was not intended as sacrifice, at least not in the old Viking way. The problem is that we know so little about the circumstances of both the time of the deposit and the details of the find (sneaky fishermen, lol); even the bog is only an assumption. Though a sand dune would not have worked as well since those tend to wander and you won't find your shinies again if that was intended.
 
Die Geschichte um den Goldschatz ist schon hochinteressant und ja immer noch von recht vielen Geheimnissen umrankt. Wieder ein interessanter Beitrag mit tollen Bildern von einem einmalig hübschen Schmuck. Aber auch die Seebilder sind natürlich für mich Nordländerin etwas sehr Schönes - auch ein bisschen was Goldenes :-)
Es hat mir wieder viel Spaß gemacht, hier Deinen Spuren zu folgen :-)
Liebe Grüße von der Silberdistel
 
Vielen Dank, liebe Silberdistel. Das Meer fotografiere ich immer wieder gern, und als studierte Skandinavistin hat mich der Wikingerschmuck natürlich besonders interessiert.
 
Those pieces look fabulous!
My first thought when you mentioned the bog was a ritual deposit, but the information about Harald's flight to the islands would be consistent with hiding the treasure for safekeeping. What happened to Tove after Harald's death?
I suppose a sand-dune might have seemed a reasonable hiding place if the situation was desperate enough, or if the intention was to come back and retrieve the jewellery soon. Sand-dunes tend to wander slowly, big storms aside. I seem to remember that the Lewis chessmen are thought to have been hidden in a sand-dune (although I may have remembered that wrong).
 
Carla, unfortunately we don't know what happened to Tove. You know what a mess the sources from that time are. ;-)
What we know of the actual site of the find does point at a bog. I also suppose any sand dune on that flat island would have brought the shinies to light much earlier. Hiddensee changes its shape so fast you can almost watch. And that's the tricky part of the find: a bog does imply a sacrifice, but those are usually damaged or at least thrown into the water apiece, and not put in a jug (and the pieces must have been protected from the surrounding ground). A dune may indeed have worked better for a - intended - short time deposit. The pieces are also interesting concerning the imaginery and shape - I'll got back to that in the second post. Both the fibula and the ten larger pendants combine a Christian cross shape with pagan elements. Makes you wonder what the owner 'saw' in such jewelry; maybe more than just decorative items.
 
Yes, indeed - although at least there are some sources :-) What a pity it isn't known what happened to Tove. Nothing good, probably, given that they were violent times. Though it leaves scope for someone to imagine a story if they wish.

I suppose a bog might have been suitable for an intended short-term hiding place as well, if there was some way of marking or otherwise being certain of which pool you'd sunk the jug in. I remember reading something somewhere about tubs of butter and cheese being sunk in bogs in Ireland as a way of keeping them cool (and presumably oxygen-free, which might be more important) to preserve them. If true (and I have no idea of the source, though I didn't make it up), that implies that it was possible to retrieve a container from a bog without much of a problem.

Anglo-Saxon jewellery and decorated weaponry has lots of overlapping layers of meaning and symbolism; the gentleman who plays King Raedwald at Sutton Hoo has a lot of interesting things to say on the subject, and there was a feature about symbolism in AS art in Current Archaeology last year sometime. It would make sense if the Danes did the same. I don't think there was the same dichotomy between 'Christian' and 'pagan' that modern ideas tend to assume. The Franks Casket doesn't seem to have any problem with having the Magi on one side and Weyland Smith on another. Iceland also seems to have been quite happy for people to go on worshipping the old gods after the island had officially converted to Christianity, as long as they didn't make too much of a fuss about it. I wonder if polytheistic religions had no problem at all with adding another god to the list and didn't see a conflict. Raedwald's temple with the two altars is a famous example - Bede was shocked, but Raedwald presumably thought it was quite reasonable.

 
Indeed, there was a transition time where pagan and Christian religion could go together (except for the muttering of some bishops and monks ;-). You get Old Norse praise songs for bishops using all the old pagan kenningar, you get cast models for crosses and Thor's hammers in the same piece, and rune stones with those entwined monsters and crosses in peaceful coexistence. In case of the Hiddensee treasure we have the cross shape and entwined monsters on the fibula (the midde part is a cross that was once inlaid with green glass which would have stood out) and the pendants have a cross shape combined with bird heads forming the tubes to which a chain cold be attached. Harald Bluetooth was more like Raedwald, I suppose, not like the model Christian as whom the emperor Otto saw him, or wanted to see him. ;-)
 
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The Lost Fort is a blog based on my travels in Germany, the UK and other places, with essays on Roman and Mediaeval history illustrated with lots of photos of old castles, cathedrals, Roman remains, and beautiful landscapes. You may also find the odd essay about geology or Mediaeval literature.

All texts (except comments by guests) and photos (if no other copyright is noted) on this blog are copyright of Gabriele Campbell.

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I'm a blogger from Germany with a MA in Literature and History which doesn't pay my bills, so I use it to research blogposts instead. I'm interested in everything Roman and Mediaeval, avid reader and sometimes writer, opera enthusiast, traveller with a liking for foreign languages and odd rocks, photographer, and tea aficionado. And an old-fashioned blogger who hasn't yet gotten an Instagram account. :-)


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