December 7th – Gullgubber

Sometimes we find objects which are beautiful, but we just don’t know what they were used for. Gullgubber is something that has been making the experts scratch their heads in wonder for years. What is the meaning behind these small, flat pieces of gold? Why were they put in the grown? Were they put there deliberately, or were they lost? Did they have some important meaning or were they just decorative pictures which people carried with them?

These are gullgubber from Lundeborg, Fyn, Danmark.

Photo: Lennart Larsen / Nationalmuseet

These are gullgubber found at Sorte Muld, Bornholm, Denmark.

Photo: Martin Stoltze, CC BY-SA 3.0

Gullgubber are small and thin plates of gold with figures on them, they are usually between 1 and 2 cm2 in size. The pieces of gold would either be cut to the desired shape or stamped with a patrician. Such stamps for the production of gullgubber have been found in a few places in Sweden and Denmark, but none in Norway. They are the oldest examples of toreutics in Northern Europe. The word gullgubbe means “man of gold” and is taken from a report published in 1791 by Nils Henrik Sjöborg. In the report he said that villagers in Ravlunda who found them in the dunes, called them guldgubbar. Gullgubber have only been found in Scandinavia and they occur in the Merovingian period (570-800 AD), with some continuity into the early Viking age.

Photo by Grete Irene Solvold, NTNU Vitenskapsmuseet, CC BY-SA 4.0

About 3,000 gullgubber have been discovered in Scandinavia, divided into 30 sites in Norway, Sweden and Denmark. Around 2,350 have been found at the settlement of Sorte Muld at Bornholm in Denmark. This is the largest collection of gullgubber found in one place. Over 100 were found at Lundeborg in Denmark, and 122 were found at Uppåkra in Sweden. Relatively few gullgubber have so far been found in Norway. The largest finds are 29 pieces from Hov in Oppland, and 22 gullgubber from Mære in Trøndelag, but a few keep popping up here and there during excavations and metal detector searching.

Photo by Grete Irene Solvold, NTNU Vitenskapsmuseet, CC BY-SA 4.0

The gullgubbe above is gullgubbe T18842:4, found at Mære in Trøndelag, Norway. It is a rectangular plate with two opposing figures in profile. They are facing each other and are both gripping something that looks like a sword between them. The person on the left has short hair and is dressed in a robe. The person on the right has longer hair and is dressed in a long dress with a cloak. The plate has a beaded frame around the edge.

Photo by Grete Irene Solvold, NTNU Vitenskapsmuseet, CC BY-SA 4.0

The gullgubbe above is gullgubbe T18842:3, also found at Mære. It is a rectangular plate with two opposing figures in profile. The people are dressed in different coats. The plate has a simple lined frame around the edge.


There are some main motifs that are dominating. A single figure of man, woman or a being without gender traits, couples where man and woman stand together (often holding objects), and there are also a few animal figures of pigs, deer and bears that have been found mainly in Denmark.

In Norway, we have so far only found gullgubber with a couple motif. There are two possible exceptions, tho, from Kongsvik in Nordland and Mære in Trøndelag. Gullgubber with a couple motif depict a man and a woman looking at each other, or embracing, grabbing or holding each other. The woman usually dressed in a serk (under dress) and may have an apron dress or something too. The man is characterized by a coat and possibly trousers. In the Danish and Swedish material, the man can often be wearing an outer garment we do not find in Norwegian, namely a caftan.

Both sexes can be depicted with objects, which we call attributes. It can be brooches in connection with their garments (cloak pins for the male, oval brooches and beads for the women, necklaces, fibula, etc), drinking vessels, a rod or a branch of some sort. Sometimes symbols like circles or triangles may also appear. These are symbols we don’t know the meaning to in this context. They may symbolize eternity or a pact or they can simply be decorative.

Photo by Grete Irene Solvold, NTNU Vitenskapsmuseet, CC BY-SA 4.0

Gullgubbe T18842:5 found at Mære, Norway. It is almost complete, but with some damage in the upper right corner. This one is also a rectangular plate with two opposite figures in profile. The person on the left has short hair and seems to be holding a sword or a staff in front of him. The person on the right has longer, straight hair and is dressed in a long dress with a shorter overcoat or robe, and a cloak. Both of the have two round shapes on the chest that might be oval brooches for the female figure and perhaps some other type of brooches for the male figure. The plate has a beaded frame around the edge.


There are four gullgubber from Mære that seems to have been made from the same stamp, according to the information about them on Collections Online, NTNU. Three of them (shown below) is as good as complete, and one is too damaged to see the motif. You can compare them yourselves:

All three pictures above is taken by Grete Irene Solvold, NTNU Vitenskapsmuseet, CC BY-SA 4.0.

Very often the figures are enclosed by an edge in the form of a row of beads or simple lines. The gold images seem to tell us a story and one of the most fascinating features is the degree and level of all the details in the image that are best captured through a microscope.

Gullgubber with a pair motif have often been interpreted as a mythological depiction of Hieros gamos – the sacred wedding, which in the Norse god world describes the wedding between the god Frøy and the jotun woman Gerd, as described in Skírnismál. The motif may be an expression of an emerging Nordic princely ideology and a change in the distribution of power in the Merovingian period. In mythology, the hero and the earthly ruler can be portrayed as God’s chosen and central to princely ideological thinking is a god-given right to inheritance and sovereignty. At a “holy wedding” an earthly ruling power is legitimized by initiation into the world of the gods. The idea is that the ruler married into the god family. The gullgubber can thus be a form of sanctioning this relationship.

Functional interpretations have also been made, where the gullgubber have been seen as “temple money” or votive gifts associated with a temple or building with a cult function. A more normative interpretation sees the various hand gestures of the gullgubber as an expression of legal binding.

What do you think these small pieces of gold were used as? Were they offerings? A wish of good luck? Perhaps they were abundance of some sort?

Information from:
Kulturhistorisk museum

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