A fabulous treasure from the 5th century – already named the Nibelungen Hoard – was recently discovered
According to myth, the German Nibelungen — with the corresponding Old Norse form Niflung (Niflungr) — is the name in Germanic and Norse mythology of the royal family or lineage of the Burgundians who settled in the early 5th century at Worms. The vast wealth of the Burgundians was often referred to as the Niblung or Niflung hoard, lost in the Rhine. Later this inspired Wagner to compose his famous “Ring”.
No “rings”, however, seem to have been found in connection with the buried treasure of gold and silver from the beginning of the 5th century, which recently was found in an undisclosed location near Rhine in the area of Mainz. Instead, the trove contains a possibly invaluable collection of silver bowls, brooches, other jewellery plus remnants of curule seat, a commander’s portable folding chair, unfortunately now in fragments.
Especially this last find witness to the brutality, which the unlicensed metal-detector exercised, when he discovered and dug out the treasure. Presumably he kept it hidden in order to sell it on the black market. The authorities have not revealed his identity, presumably because it is still not decided whether he will be prosecuted. Apparently he had to be pressured in order to give up the treasure trove to the authorities and the police are still investigating. According to German law, the government heritage authority must authorize all archaeological excavations in advance.
Whatever the outcome of this, the archaeologists have deplored his activities on-site. Invaluable information about the exact location and possible traces of textiles, which might have been preserved on the metal, is now lost.
It is presumed that when the hoard was buried, the three-dozen solid gold brooches shaped like leaves, might still have been fastened to the ceremonial tunic of an important Roman official, to whom the curule chair may also have belonged. Some of the artefacts are thus decidedly Roman design.
However the treasure is believed to be the result of a barbaric plunder, as one of the silver plates has been hacked into three in order to be used as hack-silver. Another bowl – with inlaid gems – has been pounded instead of chased, thus signalling it as a work of a Germanic or barbarian silversmith.
The hoard dates to the early part of the fifth century, and probably to the years 406 – 407 AD, when a major battle was fought between the Franks on one side and the Vandals, Suevi and Alans on the other side of the Rhine. These allied tribes were under pressure from the Huns further East. Accordingly they tried to get across the river and into safety. The Franks, tried to stop the tide by catching and murdering the vandal chief Godigisel. However, in the end they were defeated; thus the barbarians breached what had for centuries been one of the Roman strongholds moving through the cities and the countryside pillaging on their way. It marked the end of Roman political and military control in northern Gaul and ushered in the Migration Period. It is believed that the treasure was buried in connection with these events.
The age and nature of the hoard makes it a unique find in Germany, worth at least a million euro on the market and worth far more than that in historical value. Meanwhile, some people have been getting excited over the prospect that this might be part of the legendary Nibelung hoard, the Rhine gold that features in Norse and German sagas and Richard Wagner’s opera cycle, based upon them. Needless to say, there is no evidence for this, of course. But it is still a mind-boggling example of the treasures robbed or extorted by the barbarian hordes, when they flooded the last bastions of the Roman Empire.
The treasure will soon go on display in Mainz and Speyer.