Two metal detectorists were sweeping Rügen Island, off the north coast of Germany in the Baltic Sea. Like all detectorists, people who hunt for buried treasure with metal detectors, they were hoping to find something of historical interest, perhaps even something of value. They definitely came across something. Sadly, it looked like it was just a piece of modern aluminum. But closer inspection would reveal something much more exciting.
Metal detecting is an increasingly popular hobby underpinned by the romantic idea of finding buried treasure – a powerful motive for detectorists around the world. Steve Critchley has been pursuing his metal detecting pastime in the U.K. for 40 years. He gave a realistic perspective on the chances of finding anything valuable in an interview with The Independent in 2017.
“There are some people who think that it’s a way to make some easy money,” Critchley told the British newspaper. “I tell them that they’re better off putting a pound on the lottery – the odds are much better than expecting to find something valuable while metal detecting.”
Those two detectorists on that German island in January 2018 were teacher René Schön and one of his students, 13-year-old Luca Malaschnitschenko. And the treasure hunters figured that the twisted piece of metal, which they at first thought to be a piece of everyday aluminum, was worth closer examination.
It turned out that this was an extremely good call indeed, because what they had stumbled upon wasn’t an everyday piece of aluminum at all. As they quickly realized, what they had found was actually a piece of silver. And so, the two alerted the Mecklenburg-West Pomerania government archaeology department about their discovery.
In April 2018, the professionals got to work with an extensive excavation of the site where Schön and Malaschnitschenko had found the fragment of silver. They explored an area covering some 4,300 square feet and what they found made waves around the world.
What the archaeologists came across was no less than a massive Viking-era treasure hoard with a glittering array of artifacts dating back 1,000 years and more. This astonishing discovery included jewelry such as rings, brooches, bracelets and necklaces. There was also a silver amulet fashioned in the form of Mjölnir – the Norse god Thor’s hammer.
As well as this exquisite collection of jewelry the archaeologists also uncovered some 600 coins. Around 100 of those dated back to the time of a 10th century king who ruled over parts of Denmark, Sweden, Norway and the north of Germany. We’ll hear more about this king in a moment.
The oldest of these coins was a dirham from the city of Damascus in modern-day Syria with the date 714. The newest of the coins, a penny, dates from 983. Some of the silver coins have a Christian cross motif identifying them as some of the earliest currency specifically from the kingdom of Denmark.
So who was this 10th century king that the archaeologists believe could possibly have been the owner of this treasure? Step forward King Harald Bluetooth, a fascinating figure in a turbulent period when the Vikings held sway over much of Scandinavia as well as other parts of Europe.
Harald Bluetooth was the first king of a properly united Denmark, ruling from around 958. He was the son of Thyra Damnnebod and King Gorm the Old and he’s credited with not only uniting Denmark, but also with introducing Christianity to the country.
Nobody is quite sure why Harald Gormsson, to give him his formal name, was called “Bluetooth.” The best known theory is that he had a visibly bad tooth which may have been blackish blue in color. In any case, Harald is remembered as the founder of a Danish empire that stretched beyond the boundaries of modern-day Denmark.
And the importance of this find is undoubted. Speaking to DPA, a news agency in Germany, the chief archaeologist at the dig, Michael Schirren, said, “This trove is the biggest single discovery of Bluetooth coins in the southern Baltic sea region and is therefore of great significance.”
Harald certainly left his mark on Scandinavia. He built a series of massive monuments inscribed with runic writing and carving called the Jelling stones. He was also an enthusiastic builder of forts, probably as a way of reinforcing his rule over his dominions.
One of the king’s most impressive construction projects was the Trelleborg fortification on Zealand, an island off the Danish mainland which today is the site of parts of Denmark’s capital, Copenhagen. Excavated from the 1930s, Trelleborg is a typical and highly impressive Viking ring castle.
The king’s reign was far from peaceful and he found himself in frequent conflict with other would-be rulers. Harald himself had seized control of Norway after the murder of the Norwegian king, Harald Greycloak. The Danish king then lost Norway after he was defeated in battle in 974 by German forces. He managed to wrest back control in 983.
But even though Harald had managed to best the Germans, things only got worse for the king. And this time his problems came from within his own family. His son, the splendidly named Svein Forkbeard, took up arms against him and the older man was forced to flee to northern Germany. Svein caught up with him and Harald was killed in battle in 985 or 986.
And it’s Harald’s flight from to northern Germany and the date of that journey that means we can make at least a tentative link between this treasure and the king himself. One of the archaeologists, Detlef Jantzen was quoted by U.K newspaper The Daily Mail as saying, “We have here the rare case of a discovery that appears to corroborate historical sources.”
If you’re thinking that it’s just a coincidence that Harald Bluetooth shares his name with Bluetooth wireless technology, think again. The engineers who developed Bluetooth deliberately chose the name in homage to this famous Viking. And the ubiquitous Bluetooth symbol is actually a composite of the runes for “H” and “B”, the king’s initials.
After it had lain buried, perhaps abandoned by Harald himself, for more than 1,000 years, René Schön and Luca Malaschnitschenko made their unbelievably lucky discovery. But before you invest in metal detecting kit and rush off to hunt for treasure, it’s best that you remember experienced detectorist Steve Critchley’s sage advice – you’re probably better off buying a lottery ticket.