Around AD 900, a Danish Viking woman went for a walk in the fields near Aunslev on the Island of Funen and lost a precious piece of jewellery: a Viking crucifix. The pendant may bear witness to an early presence of Christianity in Denmark
Last Friday (2017) an amateur metal detectorist in Denmark literally struck gold. Dennis Fabricius Holm had found a unique golden pendant measuring 4.1 cm and weighing app 13.2 gr. With a smooth back and an eye on the top, the item was obviously meant to be worn as part of a necklace. The figure is made of fine articulated gold threads and filigree.
The cross is very similar to the famous gilded silver cross found in Birka near Stockholm in Sweden in 1879, in a woman’s grave from the Viking Age (tomb 660). However, the new find is double in size and presumably made of solid gold. Further, fragments of similar hanging pendants have been found in graves in Ketting on Als (early 10th century) and a fragment found in a newly discovered treasure found at Omø (from the time of Harold Bluetooth).
The cross from Avnslev is remarkable on three counts. First of all, it is made of gold as opposed to the other similar crosses, which were made of silver. The woman, who lost it, was presumably wealthy and Christian. Secondly, its design is similar to those found in Birka and Ketting, which can be dated to the early 10th century. Third, it is double the size of the other pendants belonging to this group.
What we can visualize now is a wealthy woman walking about in the early decades of the 10th century – before Christianization was formally adopted in Denmark – and losing a prized – large and golden – pendant, which she might have dangled proudly in front of her from a string of beads. It needs to be said that cleaning and closer inspection of the find may change this preliminary interpretation.
Signs of Viking settlement around Aunslev Church
However, further excavations have to be carried out to determine the exact context of the find of “Christ from Avnslev”.
Today, Aunslev church lies west of the present-day village of Aunslev. The cross was found in the fields lying next to the church. Other finds from the same area indicate the present church from around 1200 may originally have been built next to a Viking settlement located southwest of the church, which lies next to the old highway running across the island of Funen. Somewhat to the east, archaeologists have located what seems to be a vibrant marketplace and/or craft-centre peopled by craftsmen and artisans.
Further, not far from Avnslev, a famous ship-grave was found with a Viking buried together with his dogs and horses beneath a mound. This Ladby Ship Grave has also been dated to the early to middle decades of the 10th century. Indirect evidence suggests that the buried Viking was a brother or halfbrother of Gorm the Elder. This brother may very tentatively be identified as “King” Harold, who took part in the events in Normandy in the 940s. One particular item in this grave compares to the newly found crucifix, a gold mount measuring 2.1 x 1 cm. The mount is edged with gold filigree and ornamented with interlacings, much in the same style as the decoration on the arms of the Christ from Avnslev. Further studies will show whether there is any relationship between the two items.
We also know that detailed studies of artefacts with Christian connotations seem to be exclusively found in female graves. For instance, eight pendant crosses (including a similar crucifix) found in Birka were excavated from female graves. However, in the grave from Ketting, the woman with the cross-pendant was buried in a coffin created out of a wagon – an element traditionally interpreted as pagan, thus perhaps signalling a mixed Christian/Pagan worldview.
Whichever way to interpret the new find: Christ from Aunslev will add to our understanding of a society in a religious flux.
Christ from Aunslev is exhibited at the Viking Museum in Ladby during Easter 2016. Afterwards it will be handed over for restoration and study at the National Museum in Copenhagen.
A visit there will also give the opportunity to see the Viking Ship-Grave from Ladby
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