Bornholm's Golden Acrobat Girl

Smørenge is one of the sites on Bornholm that keeps yielding mid-1st-millennium gold mini-figurines. But in addition to the 2D representations on embossed gold foil known as guldgubber, an artisan employed by the magnate family at Smørenge also made nude 3D figurines. The fifth of these was found by one of the island's famously skilful metal detectorists in May, and she's quite a revelation. Because representations of women are far less common than of men in Iron Age art, and nude women are almost unknown.

The Smørenge woman is wearing only a hatched belt. She has the prominent "seer's thumbs" common in the era's art, and all the female anatomy we know and love is clearly modelled. Lines depicting long hair are incised onto her head and neck. Notches on her upper arms suggest that she is intended to be tied with a piece of wire or thread. Her body's overall curvature and her outstretched feet suggest that she is performing a back-flip, a motif known e.g. from the closely coeval Söderby bracteate hoard where a bearded man is seen doing acrobatics. She is 42 mm long and weighs 3 g.

The thing that commentators are wondering about is the odd cogged ridge along her spine. My guess is that she is simply a skinny acrobat whose vertebrae are visible as a line of bumps along her back.

René Laursen has a short presentation of the find at the Bornholm Museum web site, and a more detailed one in Skalk 2013:3 (June).

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By Thomas Ivarsson (not verified) on 17 Jul 2013 #permalink

I agree about the vertebrae - and she has great calf muscles!

By Victoria (Thom… (not verified) on 18 Jul 2013 #permalink

Looks like barrette to me. What acrobatics is the male figurine doing?

You mean it looks like a hair clip? The bearded Söderby acrobat is also doing the backflip, only with outstretched arms.

(OT) Nasty business. But Martin will be safe in Umeå, this crap is very rare.

"Two men arrested for Umeå station slaying"

The other shooting at Ersboda was within a hundred yards of my boss' house.

By Birger Johansson (not verified) on 22 Jul 2013 #permalink

Yes - it needs another piece, and then it becomes a hair clip, or barrette as William has correctly called it. Then that would explain the bumps.

It's a very clever piece.

By John Massey (not verified) on 22 Jul 2013 #permalink

John, isn't gold quite soft? Would another piece stay in place when subjected to mechanical stress?

By Birger Johansson (not verified) on 23 Jul 2013 #permalink

Lacking rubber bands in dark-ages Sweden they presumably had one of their peons tie it in with a piece of string or leather.

Acrobatics; are there any written sources about the importance of this activity during the era?

Mu, yes, I have a chronocentric attitude to high-end jewelry. Iron-age people were more pragmatic about design and use, even using gold coin necklaces as a portable bank.

By Birger Johansson (not verified) on 25 Jul 2013 #permalink

Assuming the figurine to date from about AD 500, no, alas there aren't any useful narrative sources for Scandinavia. Just a few brief mentions in Frankish annals of Hygelac/Hugleikr, and they can't even decide if he's a Dane or a Geat.

Birger, yes, pure gold is pretty soft compared to many other metals, but it's not *that* soft - you can make jewellery out of it no problem which will resist moderate mechanical stress. It will bend, but it's malleable, not brittle, so you can just bend it back into shape with your hands. (One of the visual 'wow' events in Hong Kong is to visit a gold shop that stocks pure gold jewellery for brides to wear at Chinese weddings and realise that all that glitters *is* gold. I had a Chinese wedding, so I know what it feels like. Pure gold, I mean.) Held in place by a leather thong or whatever, holding hair it would not be under too much stress or get banged around too much.

My wife's grandmother's wedding ring was a fairly chunky one made of pure gold, and she wore it constantly until she died at age 99 - it looked a bit misshapen and bashed around, but not too much, and a finger ring is going to get a lot more bumping around and mechanical damage than a hair clip.

I love the stuff - to me it has innate beauty. Give me a piece of pure gold to hold and I turn into Evil John.

By John Massey (not verified) on 27 Jul 2013 #permalink

Unalloyed gold is also easily abraded. Fine filigree work can get worn away pretty swiftly nanometer by nanometer.

@Martin: The vertebrae shoudn't be visible when she is bending backwards. I like the hair clip hypothesis better.

On the other hand, what kind of a person would wear a nude female in his/her hair? At that time people could be pretty raunchy, but still...

@John Massey: the gold that is normally used in jewellery is not pure. There are always trace amounts of other metals mixed in it (mostly silver) which improve durability. I don't know how pure that girl is, or how pure gold the metallurgists of that era could make. The first gold coins of Kroisos had so much silver in them that the metal was called elektron, not gold.

And you obviously haven't been in the transit hall shopping area of Dubai airport. Arabs just LOVE gold. In large amounts.

By Lassi Hippeläinen (not verified) on 27 Jul 2013 #permalink

Lassi, yep, gold dispensing machines.

While we're on the subject, it is a bit surprising that China is now the world's largest gold producer, as well as now being the world's largest importer, having overtaken India. That happened when China deregulated and permitted individual citizens to own gold, and India increased the tax on gold. But the Chinese central bank has also been buying a lot. The problem with gold, though, is that far more has been sold on paper than exists in the world as physical metal - so people can drive the gold price right down just by selling a lot of the paper, as happened recently. No gold changed hands to drop the price that much, it was all just pieces of paper. Some time, I guess the penny will drop and people who invest in gold on paper but don't actually get to hold the metal they think they have bought will realise that all they have bought is a piece of paper, and the price will bifurcate, with the paper presumably becoming worthless unless someone will actually honour it by giving you the face value of the paper in real metal, but I have no idea when that might happen. But if everyone holding paper investments all tried to demand their metal at the same time, the demand would be impossible to satisfy.

The gold jewellery worn at weddings here is 99.9%. But it's not the sort of stuff that women would wear every day, the designs are not suitable and it would look weird - it gets worn for one day and then put away in a safe deposit box somewhere, and just stays there, gets left to the kids, who can sell it if they need the cash.

A lot of people do wear pretty heavy 99.9% neck chains, but they're not for display purposes, they go inside the shirt - that's a way of investing in gold without trusting a bank to look after it for you.

When the price of gold dropped a while back, I told one of my junior work colleagues she should slip out to the nearest gold shop and get some. She said "I've already been - there are queues a mile long, and all of the gold shops have sold out."

It doesn't take much to make gold a lot stronger/abrasion resistant - I had another work colleague who had a wedding ring that was 99.9%, with 1 part per 1000 of iridium, and he couldn't bend it.

As to how pure the girl is, I don't know, but she's hanging around with her assets hanging out. Yes, it's admittedly an odd design for someone to wear as a prominent piece of adornment. I don't see any abrasion marks where another metal piece would be in contact if it was a barrette, but I guess the other piece could have been of wood, or just a leather thong.

By John Massey (not verified) on 28 Jul 2013 #permalink

Incidentally, my thought was that the line of bumps on the girl's back might have been the goldsmith's little joke - they could have served a functional purpose for a barrette, but they look like they could be her vertebrae, even though she is arching her back the wrong way to make the vertebrae protrude.

By John Massey (not verified) on 28 Jul 2013 #permalink

In fact, I'm wondering...Chinese gold wedding jewellery is bought/paid for by the groom-to-be, and is used to adorn the bride on the wedding day, but thereafter she keeps it - it's hers, as a sort of store of wealth/insurance policy. He never gets his grubby hands on it (well, I did, but only to play with for a little while - then I had to give it back.) For example, if her husband ever deserts her, she can sell the gold to get some money. I'm idly pondering whether the golden acrobat girl served a similar, albeit rather more graphic, purpose - adornment on a special day, and then just as a store of wealth thereafter, i.e. not intended for habitual wear.

Sorry for serial posting, but it's a fascinating and thought-provoking piece.

By John Massey (not verified) on 28 Jul 2013 #permalink

In Sweden there used to be something called the morgongåva, where the husband would give his bride a piece of jewellery (or a piece of land, or a province, depending on his means) on the morning after the wedding. To me that has always looked a lot like a john paying a prostitute.

The concept of a 'bride price' or 'dower' is a common one across many different cultures. The reverse process of 'dowry' as practised in South Asia always struck me as odd - how would you see that, as procurement of a gigolo? It's possible to go further, and characterise traditional (pre-feminism) Western marriage as a form of institutionalised prostitution.

Some practices are undoubtedly somewhat icky to my mind, like the Cantonese custom of the husband giving the bride's parents a roast pig to signify that the bride was a virgin.

So anyway, could this gold clip have been a 'morning gift'? It's fairly graphic, but strikes me as somewhat more elegant and a better store of some amount of wealth than a roast pig.

By John Massey (not verified) on 30 Jul 2013 #permalink

Haha, the pig custom is just surreal! I wonder what the new in-laws would give the groom if everybody knew that the daughter was not a virgin, e.g. if she was a widowed mother. "Here you go son, have a bag of yams, you're going to need your strength!".