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Elegant golden earring from Byzantium found by metal-detector

Unique 11th-century earring made of gold with cloisonné enamelling was recently discovered by a metal-detector in Western Jutland. The earring likely derives from Byzantium or Egypt.

Small earring from Mainz. Kunstgewerbemuseumin Berlin. Source: Wikipedia
Small earring from Mainz, ca. 1050. Kunstgewerbemuseumin Berlin. Source: Wikipedia

Never seen before in a Scandinavian context, a unique earring was recently discovered by the 54-year old Frants Fugl Vestergaard near Bøvling in Western Jutland. Probably, this extraordinary piece of jewellery originated in Byzantium, Egypt (or Kiev). The earring is made with the same technique as that of another famous piece, the Dagmar Cross.

The earring consists of a crescent-shaped gold plate inserted in a frame created out of gold threads and adorned with small golden pearls and ribbons. The crescent-shaped plate is filled-in with enamel, created by a special technique where you break and powder glass, and then melt it mixed with metal to render it opaque (cloisonné enamelling). The enamel motif is two stylised birds around a tree or a plant, symbolising the tree of life.

This type of jewellery is known especially from Muslim Egypt and Syria, but also from Byzantium and Kief. However, this earring compares best to Arabic examples from Egypt.

Such earrings are very rare and hitherto only known from large collections. A famous example derives from a golden treasure discovered in Mainz in 1880 and believed to have been in the possession of the imperial family, more precisely Queen Agnes of Poitou (c. 1025 -1077). This earring was found in a walled-up hiding place in a stone cellar together with other valuable jewels in 1880. It now belongs to the Kunstgewerbemuseum in Berlin. The comparison with such examples, leads Peter Pentz from the National Museum in Copenhagen to speculate how the unique Danish find arrived at the Danish shores.

Unique find

“In a Danish context, the earring is completely unique. And worldwide, we only know of ten to twelve other examples”, says Peter Pentz, adding that the Vikings brought home thousands of silver coins from their travels, but seldom any jewellery.

In terms of style and craftsmanship, the earring is similar to the somewhat later Dagmar Cross found in a 12th-century royal grave at Ringsted Church. Perhaps such pieces were never traded but donated by kings and emperors.

A personal gift from the Byzantine Emperor?

One explanation may be that the earring was part of the gifts, which Varangian members of the Imperial Guard in Byzantium received when their service ended. We know from the Icelandic sagas that these mercenaries came home from the East with silks, weapons, and other fine gifts. The earring may have been part of such a gift.

Another possible explanation is that the earring was part of the treasures brought home by the members of the royal entourage of the Danish king, Erik Ejegod (1195 -1103), who went on a pilgrimage to Jerusalem with his wife Bodil Thrugotsdaughter in 1103. By way of Novgorod, the royal couple was received in Constantinople by the Emperor before leaving for Jerusalem. Unfortunately, the royal couple died during their travels, but members of their entourage may have brought the earrings back after 1103.

The Early History of Bøvling

Capital found in churchyard at Boevling © National Museum of Denmark
Capital found in churchyard at Bøvling from ca. 1100-1150. Not easy to see, but the motif is akin to that on the earring:A tree of life surrounded by birds or animals © National Museum of Denmark

The finding place, in this connection, is suggestive. “Bøvling” is located at Nissum Fjord, a coastal lagoon on the west coast of Jutland near Bøvling. Today, the landscape bordering the firth has to some extent been converted into farmland.  A full-scale draining never succeeded, and large parts of the landscape are still characterised by rivers, meadows and salty marshes, perfect for grazing and raising horses and cattle.

The exact finding place is approximately two km from Bøvling church located 400 metres from the manor of Bøvling, later called Rysensten.

This first – Romanesque – church measured at least 23 metres and was built of granite ashlars. Inside, the church features an impressive rounded arch, made of granite ashlars and dividing the choir from the chancel. Of the early furniture, only the baptismal font has been preserved. The type may be found in a few nearby churches, indicating a local provenience. In 1918, two granite capitals were found in the churchyard featuring acanthus leaves. They may well have been part of an impressive early portal in the Romanesque church, discarded in the later Middle Ages by an extensive lengthening of both chancel and choir.

From the high Middle Ages, the nearby manor belonged to the episcopal sea of Ribe, as did the church and later the whole village. It has been speculated that the land at Bøvling was part of a donation from a bishop, Odinkar, to  Ribe, around 1000. Odinkar was, according to Adam of Bremen, a nephew of Harold Bluetooth. As such, he was closely related to an elite kindred from Northern Jutland, the Thrugots. One of these descendants was Thrugot Ulfsøn Fagerskind († c. 1070). He was leader of King Sven Estridssøn’s housecarls and father to Bodil Thrugotsdatter, who married a son of Svend Estridsen, the later King Erik Ejegod (se above). Through her mother, she was a descendant of Sveyn Forkbeard. Bodil’s two (three?) brothers were part of the entourage of Erik Ejegod’s brother, king, later St. Cnut, who was murdered in the Cathedral at Odense in AD 1086. Two of these brothers survived. We meet them later, when they were sent as emissaries after 1086 to Flanders, to have the murdered king’s brother released as hostage.  They may later have been active together with their sister, the queen, and her husband, the king, in leading the political effort to have the murdered king canonised. Also, members of the dynasty became bishops and archbishops holding high-ranking positions during the civil war in the 12th century. The magnates belonging to this kindred were known as rulers of Northern Jutland.

Although no more than speculative, the jewel may well have been a precious heirloom belonging to this noble/royal family. And lost under circumstances now forgotten.

Can be seen in the Viking exhibition

The find will probably be exhibited at Holstebro Museum in the future. Right now, though, the earring may be studied at the National Museum in Copenhagen in connection with the Viking exhibition “The Raid,” which focuses on the Vikings’ travels and plunders in both the East and the west.

SOURCE:

PRESS: Unique Viking find: Elegant golden earring discovered in Scandinavia

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