On one evening in 2016, two Danish amateur archaeologists were out on a walk. Lis Therkildsen and Ernst Christiansen also had a metal detector with them as they went, and as they crossed a field, that detector started to give a signal. So, Therkildsen and Christiansen dug about 12 inches into the ground until part of a metal object appeared. And when they later found out what they had discovered, they may have been astonished.
Metal detecting has become an increasingly popular hobby over the years, with its exponents ranging from serious amateurs like Therkildsen and Christiansen through to hobbyists hoping to find a buried treasure trove. Most of the time, though, detectorists are more likely to turn up ring pulls or other trash than any gold.
Indeed, one long-time detectorist with 40 years of experience, Englishman Steve Critchley, told the The Independent in 2017, “There are those who think it’s a way to make some easy money. I tell them they’re better off putting [money] on the lottery – the odds are much better than expecting to find something valuable while metal detecting.”
So, on the day of their find, Therkildsen and Christiansen may not have been expecting to dig up anything useful. The duo were exploring a field near a town called Svebølle on Denmark’s biggest island, Zealand. Denmark’s lively capital, Copenhagen, is also located on Zealand and lies about 60 miles east of Svebølle.
Then, after their metal detector indicated a find, Therkildsen and Christiansen dug down to a depth of around one foot. And after their excavation, they exposed the tip of what looked like a blade. Perhaps because the pair were conscientious amateur archaeologists rather than simple treasure hunters, though, they now did something that may seem counter-intuitive.
You see, Therkildsen and Christiansen chose to re-bury the item. And that was a smart move; after all, disturbing an archaeological artifact may mean that valuable information about its origins is lost forever. Then, the following morning, the Danish detectorists contacted the Museum Vestsjælland – a partnership of several local museums in Zealand.
And the day after the couple had made their discovery, they took the museum’s Arne Hedegaard Andersen to the location of their find. When the two had first uncovered their artifact, they’d thought that they may have been looking at the point of a sword.
Helped by Andersen, Therkildsen and Christiansen now unveiled their object – and what they found was stunning. The item was indeed a sword – and a very much unspoiled one at that. The two amateurs had pretty much hit the archeological jackpot, it seemed.
A press release from Museum Vestsjælland later revealed further details about the artifact, saying, “The sword is so well-preserved that you can clearly see the fine details. And it is even sharp.” Now the museum went to work on finding out the era to which the item could be dated – and the answer was astonishing.
Given that the sword was found in Denmark – one of the countries in which the legendary Vikings had thrived – you may well assume that the blade had once belonged to a Viking warrior. Perhaps it had even been in the possession of an important chieftain in the area. But such guesses would be wrong.
That’s because the origin of this formidable weapon long pre-dated the time of the Vikings, whose heyday was between the 8th and 11th centuries. Yes, this sword was much older than that. In fact, the museum determined, it belonged to the Nordic Bronze Age – so from around 1,700 BC to 500 BC.
However, the institution was able to be more precise than even that, as its experts reckoned that the fine sword came from what is known as “phase IV” of the Nordic Bronze Age. That narrows down the period that the relic came from to the two centuries between 1,100 BC and 900 BC.
Therefore, the extraordinary sword was constructed around 3,000 years ago; it’s all the more incredible, then, that it has survived in such good condition. And while there are no written records from the latter part of the prehistoric Nordic Bronze Age, other artifacts from that period do still exist.
So, although we know little of the people of Denmark back then, we can learn something of them from objects that have been discovered over the years and from excavations at various sites. It seems, for example, that during the Nordic Bronze Age individuals lived in small settlements based around farms. There appear to have been no larger settlements – not even on the scale of villages.
Many of the Nordic Bronze Age settlements were also near the ocean – and this links them somewhat to the Vikings, who were famous for their seafaring feats. The peoples of this era are additionally thought to have grown grain crops such as wheat and millet and kept animals such as pigs, sheep and cattle.
Without any written records, though, we can only guess at the religious or spiritual beliefs the people who made Therkildsen and Christiansen’s sword may have had. But thanks to discoveries such as rock carvings, it’s thought that worship of the sun may have been practiced. And we also know that Nordic Bronze Age dwellers buried their dead in elaborate graves.
As for Therkildsen and Christiansen’s find? Well, it comes in at about 32 inches long, with the blade itself constituting 26 inches of that total. But while the sword itself is generally in good shape, its grip is nevertheless missing. This section of the artifact has presumably rotted away, as it was probably constructed from wood or bone.
But the Danish detectorists’ sword isn’t the only Nordic Bronze Age weapon of its kind to have been excavated. In 1897, for example, the so-called “Vreta Kloster sword” was discovered in an area of Sweden. And while the Swedish relic is said to be considerably older than its Danish counterpart – dating back from 1,600 BC to 1,500 BC – it has a blade markedly shorter than the Svebølle sword – just 18 inches.
However, perhaps the most stunning Nordic Bronze Age find in Denmark is the Trundholm sun chariot. The 14-inch-high sculpture, which shows a horse mounted on wheels pulling a bronze disk, is considered to date to 1,400 BC and was revealed in a Zealand peat bog in 1902. Experts believe that the small statue may depict a conviction that the sun was pulled across the sky.
When it comes to Therkildsen and Christiansen’s sword, though, the ancient weapon has had only one brief public outing. It was displayed for just one afternoon in September 2016 at the Kalundborg Museum – part of the Museum Vestsjælland group. And the lucky amateur archaeologists were on hand to answer questions about the item – truly the find of a lifetime.