Archaeologists Find 800-Year-Old Figurine of Falconer in Norway

Archaeologists excavating the medieval town of Oslo in Norway have unearthed a finely carved figurine of a king or a queen with a falcon perched on his/her arm.

The 800-year-old figurine found in the medieval town of Oslo, Norway. Image credit: Norwegian Institute for Cultural Heritage Research.

The figurine is 7.5 cm long and made of organic material, either bone or antler. The artifact, probably a knife handle, is decorated on both sides and has a flat oval cross section. The depticted person wears a long robe. The face is gentle and smiling with marked pupils.

A falcon sits on the person’s right arm which appears to be gloved. The bird’s head is bent down towards the human’s left raised hand. Its plumage is illustrated with an engraved lattice pattern. Its eye is also drilled. “There is no doubt that the figure wears a crown,” said Dr. Kjartan Hauglid, an art historian at the Norwegian Institute for Cultural Heritage Research. “But it is harder to decide if it is a king or a queen. The falcon itself is not an indicator for gender. Women were also falconers in the medieval period.” “The design of clothing shows that it is from the middle of the 13th century,” he added. “The hair or head linen also fits the date. Head linen was fashionable for married women at this time.”

“This is among Scandinavia’s earliest visual representations of falconry. It was probably made at a workshop in Oslo and is among the most important artifacts found in Oslo in recent years.” “We only know a handful of similar finds with falcons from Northern Europe, several depicting women.”

“When a falcon sits on the falconer’s arm, it often wears a hood, which calms the falcon. These hoods were first introduced to Europe by Frederick II towards the middle of the 13th century,” said Dr. Ragnar Orten Lie, an archaeologist with the Vestfold og Telemark fylkeskommune. “The bird could also have been kept calm by feeding it or stroking it with a feather.”

“The cheapest price for an untrained Norwegian falcon in the 13th century was 240 silver longcross pennies, which is the same as the price of 4-6 cows or 1-2 horses,” he added. “This practice was only for the elite, inferring high status. Falconry with the smaller birds — kestrel and sparrowhawk — was also practiced by females. The kestrel became a symbol of romance.”

The figurine is an early Scandinavian representation of falconry. Image credit: Ann-Ingeborg Floa Grindhaug and Jani Causevic, Norwegian Institute for Cultural Heritage Research

According to the archaeologists, the figurine was found near Kongsgården, a royal residence taht was in use up until the start of the 14th century. “We do not know for sure who the figure depicts or if it is male or female. There are several that fit the profile,” they said.

“The date of the object, however, coincides with the reign of Håkon Håkonsson, king of Norway in the period 1217-1263. He is known as a major player in the field of falconry.” “King Håkon was considered a learned man and spent a lot of time and energy ‘civilizing’ his men after the model of European court culture.”

“As part of alliance building, he gifted falcons far beyond the European continent. Alliances were entered into and maintained through marriages and gifts. The most precious gift a Norwegian king could give was a falcon.” “Since falconry was a common royal and noble practice throughout the Middle Ages, we cannot say for certain that the figure portrays King Håkon. However, dating and context indicates that it is a strong possibility.”


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