Disk from the grave of Harold Bluetooth © Sven Rosborn

The Golden Treasure of Harold Bluetooth

New book may read like a fabled Viking detective story. In fact, the book presents us with a whole new, well-researched and compelling history of the events during the reign of Harold Bluetooth in the 10th century.

The Viking King’s Golden Treasure
By Sven Rosborn
Rivengate AB 2021

REVIEW:

Book Cover Sven Rosborn
Avico’s Annals frpom c. AD 990 have been presented and partly published in this book by Sven Rosborn from 2021

In 2014, a peculiar golden disk with an inscription pointing to Harold Bluetooth was discovered in a collection of Polish heirlooms in a Swedish suburb in Malmö. Later, this find led to a veritable hunt for the grave of the notorious Viking king, the treasure found therein, and – not least – the extraordinary discovery of a hitherto unknown chronicle from the 10th century, Gesta Wulinensis Ecclesiae Pontificum.

A new book tells this fascinating story in glorious detail while at the same time presenting us with a new and intriguing history of the events taking place in Scandinavia in the second half of the tenth century. As is proper, the book commences with an introduction to the Viking Age and Viking World history. These first hundred pages set the scene for the recounting of the “new” history of the reign of Harold Bluetooth as it unfolds, based on this new evidence.

Next, we read the nearly incredible story about the find of Harold’s grave in Wiejkowo in 1841 as told in letters and diaries, the account of the separate discoveries by the local vicar in the written sources, the dispersal of the treasure, the rediscovery of parts thereof at Hiddensee, the upheavals during and after WW2, the melting down of the treasures in the late forties, and finally the pitiful remains, which were brought to Sweden in the 80s; including, the  remarkable discovery of a Polish translation of a previously unknown chronicle from the archive of the local bishop of Wolin, containing fragments of a yearbook telling “the History of the Danes between 941 and 1025”.

At the centre of all this was the effort made by a Polish scholar, Antonina Chmielinska, who fastidiously collected the stories written down in the 1840s by the local vicar in his diary, which recounted the actual find of the grave and which also listed some of the artefacts. Antonina Chmielinska was well educated and fluent in German, Polish, French, Latin and Greek. After WWII, she ended up as administrator in the bishop’s palace in Lidzbark Warminski, where she worked as a curator until ca. 1970. During one of her visits to her daughter, who was married into the Polish family Sielski ( which inherited the finds together with the archive of the priest after WW2) she apparently discovered some unique manuscripts and documents from the Middle Ages, which at some point had ended up in the local vicarage at Wiejkowo. These papers consisted of original documents from the Middle Ages from a nearby convent and the Chronicle, Gesta Wulinensis Ecclesiae Pontificum.

The Bamberg Shrine. Copy in: The Swedish History Museum. (OD)
The Bamberg Shrine. Copy in: The Swedish History Museum. (OD)

In itself, the story of the discovery of the grave, the dispersal of the treasures, and the family memories are astounding (and will eventually make a vastly interesting film on par with the recent film about Sutton Hoo). What do you think, for instance, of the fact that at some point Sven Rosborn and Tomas Sielski went through the papers of his grandmother (the hoarder) and found a list of objects she had been allowed to take out of Poland in 1988, when the family moved to Sweden. One of these objects was a “shrine, decorated in ivory and metal”. What did it look like, asked Sven Rosborn, and got the answer: “It was square about 20 x 20 x 10 cm and had fittings in the corners made of metal and decorated with animals, and had a decorated disk showing the face of a man with a curiously pointed beard.” After which, Sven Rosborn found his phone and showed a photo of the so-called Bamberg shrine. Oh yes, it looked just like this, said Thomas.

Later confirmed by some of the elderly relatives in the family, they could tell that it had contained thousands of small, brittle coins with crosses on, which they had used when playing “grocery” as children. The same shrine was in the 50s kept in the family as it was not worth turning into ready money. Later it was – according to the written evidence – brought to Sweden, but unfortunately, destroyed in a flooded basement in Malmö in 2014. This is just one of the very detailed accounts of the fate of different objects positively known to have been part of the king’s golden treasure but now long gone. Among those, to name one, the remains of Harold’s sword, which the Sielski-boys played with as children!

Avico’s Chronicle

 

Viking treasure from Hiddensee. Source: WikipediaPart of this quest for the long lost treasure and its dispersal consisted of digging through vast amounts of written material left in the archive of Tomas Sielski’s grandmother, including – as said – the letters back and forth between her and her mother, Antonina. Through the reading of these letters, Sven Rosborn and Tomas Sielski discovered the final coup, the existence of tantalizing fragments of a hitherto unknown chronicle, the Gesta Wulinensis Ecclesiae Pontificum.

What is even more astaunding, though, is the following events. In 2017, the team went to Poland to do a survey of the church at Wiejkowo and to see if it was possible to find the location of the stone chamber, which had held the grave. During this trip, they discovered that part of the furniture of the family had been stored in 1986 – when the family moved to Sweden – at the house of an elderly man, who now wanted to clear his shed. Looking through this storage of furniture, they discovered additional papers kept in a locker‚ among which was a carefully dated translation into Polish of the Chronicle. A careful study of this showed that part of it was apparently written by a certain Avico, also known from the Chronicle of Thietmar of Merseburg, who identified him as chaplain of the prince of the Abodrites, Mistivoj. Reading the published fragments from the new Chronicle, they distinctly remind me of the “voice” of Thietmar. Were the two “bands of brothers” in the chronicle-business? We know from Thietmars chronicle that he and Avico became “fratres spiritualis”.

Of course, these annals present a complicated text to evaluate and use as a source. A Polish translation of a Latin compilation made in the 12th century of a 10th-11th century text? In itself, this creates countless challenges for any critical historian. Also, as of now, we lack the careful edition the Polish translation deserves, and which we are also promised will follow. On the other hand, the bits and pieces, which we are treated to here in the present book (especially in the addednda) make so much sense in terms of the solutions they present to some of the riddles and inconsistencies, which are otherwise presented to us by the more well-known written sources, for instance, rune-stones known from 10th century Scania, which are treated extensively in the book. The discovery of this text is truly exciting.

To name one example, in the Chronicle of Dudo of St. Quentin from ca. , we read about Haigroldus rex Dacia, who came to the rescue of his relative prince Richard of Normandy, after his father William Longsword had been murdered in 1942. This Harold was also named in Flodoard’s Annals from Reims, and here we read that he was a Northman in command of Bayeux, who came to the rescue of his cousin’s son. Flodoard’s identification of this Harold was used in the 19th century to devalue the writings of Dudo. Since no other Danish king with the name of Harold was known from the 10th century than Harold Bluetooth, and the chronology did not fit very well, Dudo became maligned as an unreliable source, accused of inventing his history to accomondate Norman politics at the time of his writing, when the dukes of Normandy were trying to operate in a world of war waged between Æthelred on one hand and Sweyn Forkbeard and Cnut the Great on the other. It now appears that Gorm had a brother, Harold, who was known to be a ferocious Viking king of Funen, and with whom Gorm was embroiled in an ongoing feud. According to Avico’s annals, this Harold took to Normandy in AD 943 to help out his cousin’s son.

The question, however, remains as to the veracity of the said fragments. As part of the review published here, an essay makes a nitty-gritty comparison of another story presented by Avico, that of the Conversion of Harold Bluetooth. Treated in several contemporary sources, it has seemed sensible to make a comparison of the stories told about this event. This comparison is published separately from the review here.

Complicated book to write

The King’s Golden Treasure has been a complicated book to write. Some challenging decisions have been called upon to make. Should the new story of Harold Bluetooth and his world follow upon the general introduction to the Viking World? Or would it be better to save this for the conclusion after having presented all the evidence in the form of the very detailed interwoven story of the discovery of the grave in 1844, the fate of the treasure in the following hundred years, and the discovery in the letters of the written account by Avico? Or should the story of Harold have been told at the end after the overwhelming evidence was accounted for? Followed by the overwhelming archaeological identification of “Jomsburg” and Jumla?

The present reviewer wonders whether in the end the story would have been less complicated to unravel. On the other hand, the author has clearly been inspired by the truly astounding new evidence and jumped headlong into the retelling of the Saga of Harold Bluetooth. Knowing other works by Sven Rosborn, it does not surprise me. Yet, a turn-around of the chapters might have been a better choice since the book is also a mind-blowing redemption of Sven, following the downright acrimonious way, in which some scholars – historians, archaeologists and not least numismatists – met the first discovery of the golden disk with the inscription about Harold.

Nevertheless, this book is truly a redemption of years of hard work carried out by Sven Rosborn and Tomas Sielski. We may regret that so little is left of the golden treasure, which once belonged to Harold Bluetooth. Or that the children played with his sword in their Polish childhood in Wiejkowo. On the other hand, so much more is presented to us – the explanation for the Hiddensee treasure and the silver treasures from the neighbourhood, the discovery of the Chronicle, and much more about the later history of the early history of Denmark, which is sure to follow.

Who knows, perhaps the manuscript of the Chronicle, which Antonina translated in the 60s, may even surface once more?

This is an intriguiging book and highly recommended.

Karen Schousboe

 

ABOUT THE AUTHOR:

Sven Gunnar Rosborn (born 1949 in Malmö, Sweden) is a Swedish archaeologist, historian and writer best known for his contributions to the archaeology of the Viking Age in the province of Scania and for his leadership of archaeology and history research and education foundations. He is recognized for the discovery of the Curmsun Disc, a memorial plaque of the great Viking king Harald Bluetooth.[1][2] The ongoing research by Rosborn may soon lead to the discovery of the original location of the legendary Viking stronghold of Jomsborg.

Sven Rosborn graduated from Lunds University in 1972 and has a Bachelors of Science (BSc) degree in Ancient Archaeology (1971) and Medieval Archaeology (1972). He earned his PhD in Medieval Archaeology in 1974. After completing his graduation he worked as archaeologist and from 1977 as director of The City Museum at Malmö Castle. In August 1990, along with two colleagues, he founded the publishing house Historiska Media and started to publish a monthly history magazine Populär Historia. He is a co-founder of Foteviken Museum (1995) at which he worked until 2012 as Information and Research Director. [3]

Sven Rosborn is an author of numerous books, articles and papers about the Viking Age and the medieval history of Scania. He is also known for taking initiative to several projects devoted to historical heritage of Scandinavia. He is a member of the board of Skånska Akedemin, an academy promoting cultural legacy of the province of Scania.

FEATURED PHOTO:

Harold Blutooth Disk with inscription on one side and a rendition of the Church of the Holy Sepulchre on the reverse © Sven Rosborn

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