New Foil Figure Die From Zealand


Working with the Gothenburg Historical Society’s metal detector group at Sättuna near Linköping in the spring of 2007, I was fortunate enough to be on site when Niklas Krantz found the thirteenth gold foil figure die known to scholarship. These dies were used in the 6th, 7th and 8th centuries to make tiny images of gods or rulers out of gold foil. The beauty of the dies is that the figures themselves are too small and light to trigger a most metal detectors. Not so the dies. And finding one of them is more interesting than finding a foil figure, since the die documents a site where the figures were actually made. These are generally interpreted as the seats of petty kings.

The other day, Danish school teacher and metal detectorist Jannick Nielsen found yet another foil figure die! Unless I’m poorly informed, his find is number 14. It surfaced on western Zealand, a large island where at least two dies have been found previously. Jannick’s die belongs to the common type which depicts an embracing couple. Norwegian historian of religion Gro Steinsland has published an influential interpretation where this motif is taken to represent the marriage between an Aesir god and a giantess, being the mythical ancestors of the era’s royal lines as documented in extant genealogies.

Thanks to Jannick for permission to publish his photograph. For more Danish detectorist goodness, see

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  1. #1 Mikael HafO
    December 8, 2008

    What is the geographical spread of these dies?

  2. #2 Martin R
    December 8, 2008

    Zealand, Scania, Bornholm — and my site outside Linköping. This distribution is actually an artefact of where metal detectorists have worked. The foil figures have been found at excavations from Bornholm to Helgö to Lofoten.

  3. #3 Mikael HafO
    December 8, 2008

    Just as in my line of work then. The hotspots of biology are strangely correlated to the university towns and to where scientists and professors have their summer cottages 🙂

    E.g. The richest fungi site in the world is the Stadsskogen (Municipal Forest Park) in Uppsala, and many of the best known botanical sites are situated in the Hållnäs peninsula North of Uppsala where many Uppsala botanists spend their summers.

  4. #4 DianaGainer
    December 8, 2008

    Are there stories to go along with such things then? I mean, do any modern old families have stories of particular Aesir deities and giants or giantesses being in their ancestry?

  5. #5 Martin R
    December 9, 2008

    No, the country was Christianised around AD 1000 and the oldest family with an unbroken genealogical record goes back only to 1280.

  6. #6 Tobias
    December 9, 2008

    Actually, gold foil figures can be, and are, located with later model metal detectors. My friend Jesper Hansen recently found this one at Sorte Muld on Bornholm (15*7 mm):

  7. #7 DianaGainer
    December 10, 2008

    Well, it’s too bad there are no names to go with those darling faces! We once paid someone to do a bit of genealogy for us and discovered that a few generations back we descended from that fellow who conquered the English, William. Remember him? That was pretty exciting until we kept on looking at HIS genealogy, which went back to somebody in Norway named Thor and HIS dad was Odin. Just a mite suspicious I’d say!

  8. #8 Martin R
    December 10, 2008

    As I once wrote, everybody with the slightest dash of European ancestry is a descendant of William.

  9. #9 frigg
    December 11, 2008

    Quite awesome. What’s the size of these beautiful little objects?

  10. #10 Martin R
    December 11, 2008

    The one we found in Kaga parish measures 29.0 by 15.0 by 2.9 mm, a
    rectangular piece of cast copper alloy. I believe the new one is of a similar size.

  11. #11 Gert Franzén
    December 12, 2008

    Tobias: Excellent find! But please don´t think it was made with a die. I wrote about the method in the latest Skalk (oktober).

  12. #12 M.E.S.
    December 27, 2008

    huh, i always figured that stuff was repousse’, like out Mississippian sheet copper work. then you had to have some sort of brayer to work the foil into grooves? bone, wood maybe?

    waaal, ifn yr gon have invisible ancestors, might just as well make em giantesses.

  13. #13 Martin R
    December 28, 2008

    Yes, repoussé is the word.

  14. #14 Gert Franzén
    December 29, 2008

    Yes, it´s repoussé. And when made directly by hand it is called “hand embossing”. And the tools were most certainly made of bronze. Take a look at my site!

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