Since 1241, Danes who stumble across a “treasure trove” have been ordered by law to hand their findings over to the crown. Now, almost a thousand years later, that mandate has morphed into a law requiring that citizens submit their archaeological discoveries to local museums in exchange for monetary rewards. In an exhibition that opened February 4, the National Museum of Denmark gathered some of these hobbyists’ most remarkable finds for a show titled The Hunt for Denmark’s Past.
One of the displays is Ole Ginnerup Schytz’s striking discovery of Iron Age gold artifacts in Denmark’s northern Jutland peninsula. Schytz made headlines in 2021 for his find: While perusing a field with a newly purchased metal detector, he stumbled across a trove of 22 gold pieces, mostly medallions, dating back to the 6th century BCE.
“Suddenly, after half an hour, there was a very clear signal from the metal detector,” Schytz said in a statement sent to Hyperallergic. “I dig and out of the ground rises a yellow thing caked in mud. In a clump of earth in my hand there is a Roman emperor who is looking straight into my face, and then I continue metal detecting. After half an hour I have several pieces of gold.”
The medallions in Schytz’s discovery, also known as bracteates, are inscribed with mystical symbols for protection from pre-Viking Danish culture.
Everyday Danes from centuries past have also made vastly important contributions to the National Museum’s collection, which are on display in a gallery adjoining the exhibition. In 1639, a lacemaker named Kirsten Svendsdatter found a pair of golden horns from 400 CE. They were inscribed with Nordic and Roman motifs. The objects, named the Golden Horns of Gallehus, were stolen and melted in 1802, but the National Museum holds two pairs of replicas in its collection.
Another monumental find came in 1902, when Frederik Willumsen discovered the “Sun Chariot.” Willumsen found the 1400 BCE Early Bronze Age relic in his field. Like the imagery on the Golden Horns of Gallehus, the patterns depicted on the chariot are Nordic. The work is thought to illustrate an ancient notion that the sun was drawn through the sky by a horse.
While some of the museum’s most prized objects were discovered centuries ago, Denmark’s treasure trove policy still offers a substantial incentive for citizens to unpack their metal detectors and peruse the country’s landscapes. In 2022, the government issued almost $900,000 to citizens who turned in archaeological finds. With almost 17,900 objects submitted, the average payout was around $50 per object.
At Denmark’s National Museum, curator Line Bjerg sifts through thousands of submissions each year, and she says the number of discoveries has been on the rise.
“Actually, it is hard to keep up with all of the new finds,” Bjerg said in the museum’s statement. “The knowledge we get based on the new finds challenges the perception of how our country was born and they add a lot of facets to the sparkling diamond that is our history.”
The National Museum’s Director Rane Willerslev emphasized Bjerg’s point.
“It is ordinary people who have handed in some of the most significant objects we have at the National Museum,” Willerslev said. “In this way, ordinary people over the centuries have created this museum together with the archaeologists, historians, and other museum employees.”
Amateur archaeologists outside of Denmark have made their mark on history, too. In December, a hobbyist with a metal detector found a 1,600-year-old Roman-Gallo dodecahedron in Belgium. The mysterious object has long baffled scholars, but existing hypotheses place the artifact as an occult object used perhaps for fortune-telling or sorcery.
“The original meaning of the find to its past owner is lost, but the object forms a new person-object bond with the finder,” Bjerg told Hyperallergic. “Because the discovery revitalizes the object, and a modern museum audience can relate to the story of the discovery of the object.”