It was not a chocolate wrapper; it was a tiny gold piece called a gold foil figure, belonging to someone in Norway’s elite 1,500 years ago.
It was not a chocolate wrapper; it was a tiny gold piece called a gold foil figure, belonging to someone in Norway’s elite 1,500 years ago.

"Imagine being the first person to hold something like this in over 1,000 years"

The small gold flake belonged to a person of power in the Merovingian period. Thanks to a faint beep in a metal detector, this 1,500-year-old gold foil figure was found.

The signal in the metal detector was so weak that Mikkel Killingmoe Christensen almost overlooked it.

“In many cases, I would have just moved on,” he writes on Østfold cultural heritage's Facebook page (link in Norwegian).

Fortunately, he didn't.

Just below the surface of the soil lay a small, crumpled piece of metal.

Christensen had found many gold-coloured chocolate wrappers before. This time, it was real gold.

The exclusive gold foil figure club

“When I looked more closely at the metal foil, I could make out two figures. I eventually realised that I was holding a gold foil figure in my hand. Imagine being the first person to hold something like this in over 1,000 years!” he says.

The crumpled gold foil figure photographed in the palm of a hand.
The tiny gold foil figures are often decorated with two figures, a man and a woman, in splendid clothing, jewellery, and elaborate hairstyles. Perhaps it is a depiction of the sacred marriage between the fertility god Freyr and the giantess Gerd.

Christensen snapped a few pictures before quickly packing it away, afraid the tiny object would be taken by the wind.

“It was about the size of my pinky fingernail, and I could hardly feel its weight in my hand,” he writes.

“Few things compare to the feeling of finding objects that can single-handedly provide new insights into the farm and the area, and that also elevate the farm into an exclusive gold foil figure club.”

Archaeologists had previously known of a description of something that could have been a stamp for making gold foil figures from Østfold county. But this is the first time anyone has actually found a gold foil figure in the area.

A kind of ritual significance

Researchers are not entirely sure what the small, decorated gold pieces, known as gold foil figures, were used for. They originate from the Merovingian period, which begins in 550 and extends into the Viking Age.

Many have been found in Denmark, quite a few in Sweden, but not as many in Norway.

The front and back og the gold foil figure, accompanied by a 1-cm scale.
There was much war, strife, and climate crisis during the time when the gold foil figures were in circulation. What did it mean for a person of power to own a decorated gold flake the size of a fingernail? Here are two images of the front and back of the Østfold gold foil figure put together.

They are often found in connection with ritual buildings, and the leading theory is that they were used for some kind of ritual.

The largest collection of gold foil figures in Norway was found at Hov farm, outside Lillehammer. This collection grew by five gold foil figures after excavations last summer, bringing the total to 35.

This time, the gold pieces were found in situ – where they originally lay – unlike the more random finds in plowed fields.

Three of the gold foil figures from Hov were found in the wall, and two in a post hole. This find weakens the theory that gold foil figures were used as a kind of ticket.

A rare find

Since the early 1700s, gold foil figures have been found at around 10-11 different sites in Norway. It is most common to find just one or two pieces at the same location.

“This is not a common find,” says Ingunn Marit Røstad.

The archaeologist at the Museum of Cultural History in Oslo is an expert on the Merovingian period and has worked extensively with gold foil figures.

“This is the first find from Østfold. It’s certainly very fun and exciting,” she says.

Tiny and super detailed

Røstad received a picture of the gold foil figure when it was first found in April.

The two people depicted on it look ‘typically Norwegian,’ she believes.

"The man wears a cloak with a slit, with two flaps sticking out in front and back. This also appears in Denmark but is most common in Norway. There's also something about the woman's hair and how it's depicted that's typical for Norwegian gold foil figures," she says.

A close up of a gold foil figure showing a man and a woman.
One of the five gold foil figures found at Hov in Vingrom, outside Lillehammer last summer.

The tiny gold foil figures have a level of detail that is only fully visible under a microscope.

Røstad is currently studying the 35 gold foil figures found at Hov farm.

“It’s amazing how detailed some of them are. They’re unbelievably small, yet we can see that the figures on different gold foil figures have different brooches, cloaks, dress patterns, and hair buns that can be high on the head or low at the nape, with hair falling down the back."

Røstad expects more gold foil figures to be found in the future.

“There’s been an explosion in metal detecting in the last 10-15 years, and this shows that gold foil figures can be found,” says Røstad.

“The signal was very weak, so he was uncertain. I don't think earlier metal detectors were good enough to find them, but now the quality is better. So there’s a good chance that more will be found in the future.”

A metal detector is leaning against a spade in a large field.
The tiny gold foil figure only gave a faint signal in the metal detector, so faint that it was almost overlooked.
A young man with short light brown hair is smiling, dressed in a blue long sleeved top. He is standing outside, with mountains and a fjord in the background.
Mikkel Killingmoe Christensen and his father are among the metal detectorists who deliver the most finds.

Power was present here

The gold foil figure in Østfold was found on a farm in Fredrikstad, where Mikkel Killingmoe Christensen and his father, Terje Christensen, have spent many hours over the last two to three years.

Given the nearby known cultural landmarks, it is likely that this location was associated with a centre of power during the Iron Age.

“There was clearly activity here during the Merovingian period,” says county archaeologist Arild Lunde Teigen from the cultural heritage department in Østfold.

However, he does not necessarily believe they will find more gold foil figures in this exact location.

“It was found on a kind of slope. These gold foil figures are often found in post holes, so this is probably a stray find that has been displaced by plowing,” he says.

The discovery by Mikkel Christensen and his father was not entirely random.

“They’re probably the two people who submit the most finds in all of Norway!”


Translated by Alette Bjordal Gjellesvik

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