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Two Articles from Roskilde Museum, October 2009


translated from the Danish by John D.Niles

The following brief articles, which tell of exciting new archaeological discoveries at the old royal site of Lejre in Denmark, may be of interest to specialists in Beowulf and related subjects. The original articles are available online at http://www.roskildemuseum.dk.


1. Excavations at Lejre Continue (Udgravning i Lejre fortsætter)

Funding makes possible new investigations into unique antiquities

With renewed funding from the 'Foundation of 29 December 1967' (established by Ejlif Krogager), Roskilde Museum has recently found it possible to resume investigations at the old princely seat of Lejre. This has resulted in epoch-making discoveries during the summer of 2009.

Three huge new halls from the Viking Age have come to the light of day, each of which exceeds in size the previously discovered 'Lejre Hall'. The largest of these constructions measures no less than 60 meters in length and 11 meters in breadth, thereby surpassing all known buildings buildings of this era in southern Scandinavia.

With this new funding, it is now possible for Roskilde Museum to bring forth yet more exciting details about these wholly unique antiquities, which still represent only a small part of a yet larger complex of buildings that have not yet been excavated.

From an historical point of view, the area around Gammel Lejre is entirely unique, even from an international perspective, on account of the close interplay between well-known legends about the Skjoldungs and Beowulf, the many prehistoric monuments that are visible at Lejre, and these rich archaeological discoveries.

Indeed, the area of Lejre constitutes a significant part of the project 'Land of the Skjoldungs', which, with the support of the Arbejdsmarkedets Feriefond (the Workers' Market Vacation Fund), has as its purpose to develop the idea of a National Park to be located at Lejre and the Roskilde district. Extending the opening hours of Lejre Museum is part of that plan, as is research using magnetometers, since these, working as a kind of 'underground radar', can provide an image of constructions hidden beneath the earth.

Linked to the previous page on the Roskilde Museum web site is the following article:


2. Archaeology Round about the Year: The Earthly Asgård (Arkæologien Rundt - Det jordiske Asgård

(presented on the Danish television channel dk4 on 3 September, 2009. Host: Frantz Howitz)

Back in the 1600s, the inhabitants of Lejre maintained that there had been a religious center at nearby Kirckehøj in olden days. Ole Worm mentions this in 1643 in connection with his aerial perspective of Lejre. [For text and translation of Worm's report see J.D. Niles, Beowulf and Lejre (Tempe AZ, 2007), pp. 398–99]. The latest excavations at Lejre reveal that those claims may easily have been right.

Back in 1986, archaeologists from Roskilde Museum excavated a 50-meter-long, 12-meter-wide hall dating from Viking times. Round about the hall were four smaller houses, and outside the complex was found a 'hørg' — a heap of stones where every ninth year, around the time of the winter solstice, sacrifices of animals (and perhaps also of people) were offered. This is reported by German authors who wrote about Lejre at that time [that is, by Thietmar of Merseburg; see Beowulf and Lejre, pp. 298–99]. According to ancient poems and legends, as well, the most ancient Danish royal line, the 'Skjoldungs', made their home at the royal settlement at Lejre, where they lived in magnificent halls built close by the ancestor's grave mound.

This past summer, archaeologists have excavated yet another hall, this time at Kirckehøj, a place associated with popular legends. In 1643 the antiquarian scholar Ole Worm commissioned a perspective view of the whole area of Lejre. He writes that, according to the local inhabitants, there stood a temple or holy site at Kirckehøj in olden days. The latest excavations show that there could be much truth in this old lore. The newly discovered hall is full of secrets that archaeologists are now attempting to clear up.

The newly discovered hall existed in two phases – or perhaps three – of which the most recent one is from the late Viking Age and measures 60m in length. This hall is thus the largest that has been found in Denmark. In the midst of the oldest of the halls, funerals had taken place, and lying outside the area occupied by the hall, an additional four graves have now been found. There is no doubt that the people buried outside the hall were very powerful members of an elite. In accord with Viking custom, there are no special grave goods. The remains of a dagger with a silver shaft, together with a little piece of gold thread, however, make it clear that the person buried under the floor of the hall was dressed in precious clothing and was certainly a person of worth. There is no evidence as to whether he was a local prince – perhaps Rolf Krake or one of the other Skjoldungs.

It is noteworthy that hardly any material finds have been made within the immediate area of the hall – for example, potsherds or the remains of other household items. There is also nothing pertaining to military use, as at Trelleborg. On the other hand, precious things have been found outside the hall: rare coins, a small gold ring, a Thor's hammer, and a brooch with a mask-like design. Here too have been found more everyday objects such as loom weights, combs, knives, etc.


Perhaps a temple

The burials and the lack of material finds inside the hall, when taken together with the hall's physical situation and extent, are all signs pointing to the conclusion that the hall had a very special function: perhaps it served as a temple or some other kind of sacred place, and very possibly as an earthly symbol of Asgård; perhaps it was a king's residence; perhaps both at the same time.

The hall was constructed over a framework of gigantic posts, dug down into the earth to a depth of about 2 meters and of exceptional girth. Adjoining the main hall was a set of side buildings, as well as a course of fencing that leads directly to the 50-meter-long hall that was excavated in 1986. Much points to the conclusion that these two halls belonged to a single huge complex that must have looked imposing. That Lejre was at least as important as Jelling, there can be no doubt.


Roskilde Domkirke

'Jelling and Lejre are kindred sites', says Tom Christensen, head of the archaeology division at Roskilde Museum, speaking to to dk4's Frantz Howitz. Archaeology shows that Lejre most certainly was the pagan religious center and the royal seat of Denmark's earliest royal line, just as legends and ancient poems state. These two centers of power – Jelling and Lejre – probably existed contemporaneously. But it was Jelling that 'won out' when Christianity became the state religion. Therewith the heathen Lejre hall lost its cultic significance and disappeared under the earth, though not from memory. About eleven kilometers from Lejre, a town soon grew up around the new cult house of Roskilde Cathedral.

'To experience the excavation at Kirckehøj at Lejre is like stepping into the very earliest history of Denmark. It is at least as amazing and relevant as the history of Jelling', remarks Frantz Howitz.