Archaeologists find 800-year-old falconer figurine in Norway

Archaeologists excavating medieval Oslo in Norway have unearthed an intricately carved figurine of a king or queen with a falcon perched on his arm.

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

The figurine is 7.5cm long and is made of organic material, bone or antler.

The artifact, probably a knife handle, is decorated on both sides and has a flat oval cross section.

The disappointed person wears a long dress. The face is soft and smiling with marked pupils.

A hawk sits on the right arm of the person who appears to be gloved. The bird’s head is tilted towards the human’s raised left hand. Its plumage is illustrated with an engraved lattice pattern. His eye is also pierced.

“There is no doubt that the figure wears a crown,” said Dr Kjartan Hauglid, art historian at the Norwegian Institute for Cultural Heritage Research.

“But it’s harder to decide if it’s a king or a queen. The hawk itself is not a gender indicator. Women were also falconers in medieval times.

“The design of the clothes shows that they date from the middle of the 13th century,” he added.

“The hair or the head linen also correspond to the date. Headwear was all the rage for married women at this time.

“This is one of the earliest visual representations of falconry in Scandinavia. It was probably made in a workshop in Oslo and is among the most important artifacts found in Oslo in recent years.

“We only know of a handful of similar finds with northern European falcons, several of which are female.”

“When a falcon sits on the falconer’s arm, it often wears a hood, which calms the falcon. These balaclavas were first introduced in Europe by Frederick II around the middle of the 13th century, ”said Dr Ragnar Orten Lie, archaeologist of 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 un-trained Norwegian falcon in the 13th century was 240 pence in longcross silver, which is equivalent to the price of 4-6 cows or 1-2 horses,” he added.

“This practice was reserved only for the elite, inferring a high status. Falconry with small birds – kestrel and hawk – was also practiced by females. The kestrel has become a symbol of romance.

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

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

According to archaeologists, the figurine was found near Kongsgården, a royal residence which was used until the beginning of the 14th century.

“We don’t know for sure who the character is or if it’s a man or a woman. 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 scholar and devoted a great deal of time and energy to ‘civilizing’ his men on the model of European court culture.

“As part of building alliances, he offered hawks far beyond the European continent. Covenants were made and maintained through weddings and gifts. The most precious gift a Norwegian king could give was a hawk.

“Since falconry was a common royal and noble practice throughout the Middle Ages, we cannot say with certainty that the figure represents King Håkon. However, the dating and context indicate that this is a strong possibility.

James C. Tibbs